When we think of excessive urban air pollution, we tend to think of cities in Asia. Mumbai. New Delhi. Beijing. Yet for many people living in Europe, unhealthy levels of air pollution are much closer to home than they may think.
Take Paris. The City of Light is a perennially popular tourist draw, and for good reason. Many people from around the planet would love to live there. But if they did, they might end up like local Parisians who are exposed to harmful airborne pollutants all year round. The same goes for other beloved European cities from London to Amsterdam and from Barcelona to Prague.
In fact, according to a new study by the European Transport & Environment Association, spending a day outdoors in the continent’s 10 most popular cities is equivalent to smoking between one and four cigarettes, depending on the city, when it comes to the deleterious effects of air pollution on your health.
The worst polluted cities among the 10 are Istanbul and Prague with the equivalent of four cigarettes a day each, followed by Milan (three cigarettes) and London (almost three cigarettes). A day in Amsterdam, Rome, Vienna and Paris equals smoking two cigarettes, while you’re somewhat better off in Dublin and Barcelona with one cigarette a day.
The main source of particulate matter in these cities is the vehicles that pack their streets. “Carmakers consistently break fuel efficiency laws by releasing vehicles more polluting than they should be,” T&E notes. “Industry claims modern diesels are clean, but checks reveal this is false, with most emitting up to 18 times the legal limit of NO2 pollution. As a result, cities such as Paris, London, Hamburg and Milan have begun restricting diesels.”
Yet far more will need to be done before many of Europe’s most popular cities can boast of clean air again. In the meantime, you should be aware that spending time outdoors in these cities, especially in summer during the tourist season, comes with certain risks to your health.
“When air pollution is bad, we are told to avoid eating or exercising outside,” said Jens Müller, the association’s air quality and diesel coordinator. “But walking around cities and eating on restaurant terraces is what city breaks are all about. Right now, tourists, including kids, are more or less forced to smoke, in terms of the health impacts.” And exposure to even relatively low levels of air pollution can damage your heart, as a new study conducted in London has found.
And it gets worse. Air pollution levels in many popular European cities may well be a lot worse than locals and tourists realize, T&E warns. Municipal authorities, it says, “frequently rig monitoring stations to hide bad results, placing them in parks, calm streets or switching them off altogether.”
In fact, the European Commission is taking the governments of Romania and Belgium to court for engaging in such deceptive practices. “Citizen groups have launched monitoring projects in response. These reveal air quality far worse than official data in Italy, Germany, Bulgaria and Belgium,” the association notes. “Meanwhile, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Romania face billions in fines for breaching EU air pollution standards.”