Although there is always room for denialism, the reality is stubborn. Madrid, whose poor air quality has led Spain to be denounced before the European Court of Justice, is the European city with the highest mortality caused by pollution from cars. The sixth is Barcelona, which has also repeatedly exceeded the maximum legal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), according to an international review led by the Institute of Global Health of Catalonia and which publishes The Lancet.
The study estimates for the first time – with consolidated data from 2015 – the number of premature and preventable deaths attributable to NO2 and fine particles (PM 2.5) in almost a thousand European cities. The Spanish capital is the worst stop, as it bears the highest mortality rate (up to 7% of annual deaths) from this gas “associated with large volumes of traffic in densely populated areas”, the scientists emphasize.
The results come a day after the delegate of the Environment of Madrid, Borja Carabante (PP), muted the origin of the deadly pollution in his city, that is, traffic: “If the problem is exclusively traffic, ¿ How is it possible that today we are in pollution scenario 1? “, he wondered this Monday when he understood that Filomena’s snowfall had forced many cars to be left at home while a black beret of pollution accumulated over the city. A toxic layer, actually trapped by inversion.
The cities that accompany Madrid on the list of cities with the highest burden of mortality from NO2 are Antwerp, Turin, Paris, Milan and Barcelona. The research understands that cities with a lot of population and capitals bear a higher mortality, “as well as other neighboring, smaller ones, that have a greater potential use of cars to move to larger cities.”
The explosion of the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the evidence linking heavy traffic with high nitrogen dioxide pollution. Precisely in Madrid, the confinement and stoppage of the activity imposed in spring by the state of alarm to contain the first wave of the disease led to a reduction of toxic levels in the air of up to 40% compared to the average for the decade. However, as the use of automobiles was resumed, the measurements began to escalate again.
Finally, Madrid again narrowly failed to comply with European regulations on legal limits that cannot be exceeded. The same phenomenon did allow Barcelona to stay below the maximum threshold required by European regulations. “Our results support the evidence indicating that there is no safe threshold below which air pollution is safe for health,” explains Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, ISGlobal researcher and senior author of the study.
The calculations of this team indicate that if the levels of the World Health Organization were respected in Madrid, at least 206 deaths and 2,300 would be avoided if lower limits were maintained. Savings would reach 79,000 lives across Europe if these cities had the thresholds for those with the best records. This “suggests that current European legislation does not sufficiently protect people’s health, so that the maximum permitted limits for NO2 and PM2.5 should be reviewed”, Nieuwenhuijsen concludes.
Regarding the other poison on which the study has been developed, microparticles, the review shows a different picture. Here, the worst data are carried by regions such as the Padana Plain in Italy, southern Poland and eastern Czech Republic.
The ranking is dominated by Brescia and Bergamo (Italy) followed by Karviná (Czechia), Vicenza (Italy) and Upper Silesia (Poland). The explanation is given by the causes that generate these particles: “They are suspended matter produced by combustion, not only from motorized vehicles, but also from other sources, such as industry, domestic heating or the burning of coal and wood. “explains Sasha Khomenko, a researcher at the institute. In Brescia, up to 15% of premature deaths are related to PM 2.5. And they can be avoided.
On the other side are, above all, cities and regions of northern Europe. The places with the lowest mortality from NO2 are municipalities such as Tromso (Norway), Umea (Sweden), Oulu (Finland) and Kristiansand (Norway). Regarding PM 2.5, Reykjavik (Iceland), Tromso, Umea and Oulu stand out, a group of three that repeats in both lists.