Air pollution: a cost for health

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With the beginning of 2015, some new rules for cars emissions will come forwards in Europe: vehicles will have not to emit more than an average of 130 grams of CO2 per kilometer and, by 2021, the target will be further reduced at 95 grams. In fact, road transport contributes to about one-fifth of the European's total emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. And transport is the only major sector in the Europe where greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. Europe is still far from achieving its objectives about levels of air quality, in order to reduce unacceptable risks to human health and the environment.

The European Environmental Agency 2013 report has estimated the air pollution trends from 2002 to 2011, highlighting a general reduction of emissions.

However, despite the trends the European limit and target values for particulate matter (PM) were exceeded widely in 22 European countries and 33 percent of urban population has been exposed to high level of pollutants in 2011.

When air is not healthy

Air pollution is one of the major environmental health risks, contributing to respiratory (14 percent of clinical cases) and cardiovascular diseases (80 percent), and lung cancer (6 percent). WHO reports that in 2012 around seven million people died – one in eight of total global deaths – because of air pollution exposure. This finding more than doubles previous estimates: for the low-middle income European countries the morbidity due to air pollution is about 75 in 100,000, while in high-income countries it decreases at 44 in 100,000. Moreover, recent evidences have attributed to air pollution other adverse effects: for instance, exposure during pregnancy has been associated with reduced fetal growth, pre-term birth and spontaneous abortions; air pollution may act on the nervous system impairing cognitive functions and increasing headache and anxiety; gas emissions have impacts on liver, spleen and reproductive system.

Furthermore, air pollution has considerable economic impacts, cutting short lives, increasing medical costs, and reducing productivity through lost working days across the economy. According to the “Cost of air pollution” 2014 report, gas emission are not cheap for national healthcare: in 2010, it cost about USD 1.7 trillion, and road transport accounts for about 50 percent of this amount. Between 2005 and 2010, the economic cost of death for air pollution increased by 7 percent.

Tech tools for the future of air

By taking advantage of open data, it is possible to monitor the quality of air in our cities in real time: Europe is almost green in this moment, but data about Italy are lack. And in any case, London, Italy’s Po Valley (including Venice), parts of Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands are still considered hot-spot for air pollution.

Even if we lack data, short term effect studies (such as Medparticles) in Europe showed a clear north-south gradient in the PM-mortality association: Mediterranean cities showing higher relative risks then the Northern ones, because of higher air temperature, particles composition and Saharan dust influence. The long-term effects of air pollution are known because of large epidemiological studies performed in USA and Canada, Japan and China, but information are poor about Mediterranean countries. For this reason, in 2013 the Medhiss European project (with the Union contribution of 791,000 euro) has been launched, to collect health and air pollution long-term data from four countries: France, Spain, Italy and Slovenia. The correlation between mortality and morbidity data, as a consequence of urban and rural air pollution exposure, will help in fulfilling the final goal of the project that will end in 2016: the development and updating of the European Union environmental policy, in order to reduce health effects of air pollution.

But air pollution studies also need practical implications. In order to fill the gap between studies on air pollution consequences and applications at clinical level, the European Myair - Pasodoble project has arisen within the Copernicus earth observation programme, contributing with maps and data. Pasodoble offers a shared framework for European countries, able to manage the quality and efficiency of informative services to support healthcare, forecast for tourists and athletes, and activities in environment monitoring agencies.

Horizon 2020 instead will try to develop technological tools able to fight against air pollution. This is the core of the forthcoming call, offering a budget of 50 millions of euro to projects dedicated to this topic. But environmental actions could not be untied from projects dedicated to cities mobility, like Re-seeties, with its contribution of 375 millions of eurs for smarter and cleaner vehicles in our cities. Technological applications are considered as the future answer to air pollution monitoring and reduction.

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