Europe’s poorest, least educated and most jobless regions are bearing the brunt of the air pollution.
Nearly half of London’s most deprived neighbourhoods exceeded EU nitrogen dioxide (NO2) limits in 2017 compared with 2% of its wealthiest areas.
Heart-attack survivors exposed to long-term air pollution in the Greater London area were more likely to be readmitted to hospital, where they also had higher mortality rates.
Similar findings were reported in France, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands, Wales and Wallonia. Exposure to PM2.5 – by far the biggest killer – and O3 was highest in eastern European states blighted by poverty, unemployment and poor education.
Shirley Rodrigues, the deputy mayor of London, said the government had “a moral obligation” to act on the city’s 9,000 pollution-related early deaths and the £4bn annual cost to the NHS.
She said: “There is a vast inequality in London between the richest and poorest areas. The richest areas own the most cars but people in the most deprived areas have the worst air quality – and the lowest car ownership figures. There is a moral obligation on the mayor – and on all of us – to act.”
Across Europe, more than half a million people die prematurely each year from exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ozone (03) and NO2, but the extent to which the numbers are skewed by class has been under-researched.
Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, the World Health Organization’s climate change and health team leader, said: “We’ve known at the global level for a long time that the poorest countries are much more exposed than the richest. It’s shocking to see that these inequities are also clear even within one of the richest continents in the world.”
Data in the EEA report shows that heart attacks and strokes account for 80% of early deaths from pollution, followed by lung diseases and cancers. Polluted air is also being increasingly linked to new-onset type 2 diabetes in adults, obesity in children, systemic inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease and IQ deficiency.
Older people and children in working-class urban areas are most likely to suffer from its impacts.
“They are also the ones who tend to have the least say in how and where they live, work or go to school, which, in turn, affects their exposure to these environmental health hazards,” the report says. “As a result, their health tends to suffer the most from the impacts of air pollution, noise and extreme temperatures.”