Air Pollution in the West: It’s Not Just in Asia

Air Pollution in the West: It’s Not Just Asia

For some reason, we assume that air pollution only exists in Asia. Seeing the smog that engulfs cities like Shanghai and Bombay, we assume that the US or European cities we live in are entirely free of airborne toxins. Because of this assumption and the false sense of safety, we fail to protect ourselves against the air pollution in our area. As it turns out, excessive emissions from vehicles, industrial sources, and indoor heating (especially in the US and Northern Europe) raise the pollutant levels above the threshold.

Do we really have nothing to worry about, or are we just ignoring the threat of air pollution in developed countries, despite the detailed statistics? Let’s look at what the data says to get a more realistic picture of the situation.

Air Pollution in the United Kingdom: 1 In Every 12 Deaths

Did you know that 8.3% of the deaths (40,000 people per year) in the UK were due to air pollution [1]? In other words, 1 in every 12 deaths is from asthma, stroke, or heart disease caused by air pollution. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though. Approximately 14 million people, 4.5 million of which are children and elderly, are exposed to high levels of air pollution on a daily basis [2].

When we look at air quality in the cities, this is no surprise at all. Recent studies by Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change brought a horrifying truth to the surface: 44 cities in the UK exceeded the air pollution levels set forth by the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to the report, many major cities in the UK exceeded the tolerable air-PM2.5 levels of 10 µg/m3. These cities include Glasgow (PM2.5:16 µg/m3), London (PM2.5:15 µg/m3), Leeds (PM2.5:15 µg/m3), Oxford (PM2.5:15 µg/m3), Cardiff (PM2.5:14 µg/m3), Birmingham (PM2.5:14 µg/m3), and Manchester (PM2.5:13 µg/m3). As expected, they also failed to meet the tolerable levels of Ozone, Nitrogen dioxide, Sulphur dioxide, Carbon monoxide, and PM10

So, who is the main culprit here? Yes, you guessed it: diesel vehicles. More than half of the vehicles in the UK run on diesel, releasing dangerous amounts of NO2 into the air, especially around highways and roads with regular traffic jams. Another reason for air pollution is the burning of fossil fuels in houses for cooking and heating, especially in winter, accounting for nearly 50% of PM2.5 released in big cities.

Air Pollution in the United States: Even Deadlier Than Guns

The total number of deaths from gun violence and road accidents in the US is 70,000. Guess what that number is for air pollution: 200,000 premature deaths per year! While this is in no way an underestimation of gun violence, it illustrates the severity of air pollution in the US. What’s more disconcerting is, according to a recent report from the American Lung Association, 150 million people are breathing overly-polluted air in the country, meaning one of every two people. So, the death toll is likely to only keep on rising.

Reports from the American Lung Association show that the most populated cities and financial and industrial hubs are among the most polluted. Looking at the ozone and particle pollution levels, California ranked as the most polluted state in the country, containing six of the ten most polluted cities in the nation. In terms of ground ozone levels, Los Angeles ranks the worst, while Bakersfield is the city with the highest PM2.5 pollution levels. 

The states following California were Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Alaska. Apart from these states, New York ranked #12 in ozone pollution, while Chicago is in the top 20 for particle pollution.

While the minor sources of air pollution vary in every state (e.g., wildfires in California, wood-burning in Alaska), the main sources are the same: vehicles and industry. Researchers from MIT found that transportation and power generation were responsible for 53,000 and 52,000 premature deaths in 2020, respectively.

Air Pollution in France: Taken to the Court by EU

With 48,000 premature deaths, France is one of the front-runners of air pollution in Europe, so much so that the EU Commission took the country to court twice for violating the relevant EU laws. 

While France is considered moderate-level in air pollution in IQAir Standards, the numbers in big cities and industrial areas are still troubling. The PM2.5 levels are of particular concern, especially in Paris, where there are nearly 15 µg/m3, exceeding the EU threshold of 12. It was also estimated that 46% of the urban population were exposed to O3 above EU standards.

Airparif determined the three main sources of pollution in France as road transportation and industry, and heating, which added up to 95 percent of the pollutant levels. One interesting observation came from IQAir, depicting peak PM2.5 levels of 40 mg/m3 in winter months, which clearly shows how residential heating methods in France contribute to the pollution levels.

Air Pollution in Italy: It Gets Worse In the North

If you live in Italy and are above 30 years old, there is a 1 in 10 chance that your death will be directly related to air pollution. Statistics from European Environment Agency substantiate this claim, as Italy now has the highest number of annual EU premature deaths from PM2.5 (59,500) and NO2 (21,200). As Air Quality Index reports revealed that 55 of the 107 cities had air-quality levels below the EU standards, these numbers could rise even more in the future.

So, what makes the air quality in the country of love and arts so poor? First of all, the motorisation levels are way above average for a European country. According to a report from the Italian NGO Legambiente, for every 100 citizens, there are 65 cars, as opposed to 38 cars/100 citizens in Berlin, London, and Paris.

Another serious threat is industrial pollution, where the major hotspots congregated in the industrialised cities in the north, including Brescia, Venice, and its surroundings. The annual O3 and PM exposure peaked in these areas, meaning you get 103 and 47 days of exposure per year, respectively [3].

Air Pollution In Spain: Everyone Is Exposed

It’s nightmarish to think of a country where almost the entire population breathes contaminated air. Unfortunately, this became a reality in Spain. According to the 2018 report from Ecologistas en Accion, 88% of Spanish territory failed to meet the EU requirements, while 97% of the population was exposed to harmful levels of air pollutants. That’s why you are eight times more likely to die from air pollution than road accidents in Spain.

Living in Madrid poses a particularly elevated risk, as the statistics from Barcelona Institute for Global Health revealed that Madrid has the highest NO2-emission mortality in Europe.  Besides Madrid, overall pollution levels peak in Barcelona, Valencia, Andalucia, and the Basque region.

Air Pollution in Germany: Highest NOx Emission in Europe

The breathtaking scenery of the mountains and lakes in Germany gives us a false impression of the air quality. In terms of premature deaths from NOx emission, Germany, in fact, shares the #1 spot with Italy. What’s scarier is that the vehicle-NOx emission exceeded the EU standards in 57 German cities. Stuttgart was even considered the Beijing of Germany, with NOx levels reaching 82 micrograms, twice as much as the threshold value.

The two most polluted cities in Germany are Frankfurt and Dresden, with PM2.5 concentrations up to 50 mg/m3, five times the EU standards. Interestingly, Berlin has complied with these threshold values, except for winter months, where the PM2.5 concentrations increase up to 17 micrograms.

Air Pollution in the Netherlands: Death One Year Earlier

Did you think you are always breathing clean air in the country of endless bulb fields, windmills, and bicycles? Think again; the invisible pollutants in the Netherlands might be reducing your life span by more than a year, IQAir finds. Since 2014, 12,000 people per year have been prematurely dying because of air pollution, which outnumbers the cardiac death caused by alcohol consumption.

To add to these disappointing statistics, many major cities in the country failed to meet the clean air criteria. In Amsterdam, every four out of ten streets displayed abnormal NO2 emissions despite the efforts to reduce vehicle use. Other major cities like Rotterdam, Maastricht, and The Hague also exceeded the recommended NOx amount of 40 micrograms.

Air Pollution in Scandinavia: Even Scandinavia Has Pollution

While Scandinavian countries have the cleanest air in Europe, recent studies showed that even trace amounts of pollutants could trigger fatal health risks. According to Swedish Environmental Research Institute, 7600 die from long-term exposure to PM2.5 and NO2 every year. Only half of these deaths were associated with regional air pollution, meaning airborne pollutants traveling from other parts of Europe have a huge impact.

The three major sources of emission in Scandinavia are vehicle exhaust emissions, SO2 from industrial sources, and PM from indoor heating and studded tyre use during the winter months. 

The study concluded that, while the air quality is improving throughout the region, the death tolls remain the same because of the increasing urbanisation.

Air Pollution in The Middle East: Killer Dust Storms

The combination of vehicle use, industrial resources, and natural causes continues to raise the number of deaths in the Middle East. In fact, 1 out 10 deaths is linked to air pollution.

Of all these countries, United Arab Emirates is on a whole new level. According to the World Bank Report, UAE ranked as the country with the worst air quality in 2015, with the pollution levels exceeding even China and India. The report attributed the severity of the situation to dust storms, vehicle emissions, excessive industrialisation, and the absence of vegetation. It is also worth mentioning that vehicle emission standards are not as strict as in European countries.

Unlike countries like the UK and the US, natural sources contribute to nearly half the total emission and exacerbate the pollution levels dramatically. WHO’s report about the Middle East showed that dust storms in Iran and Saudi Arabia increase the PM levels more than 60 times the tolerable levels.


Although the air quality is much better in developed countries than in most of Asia, it is still above the recommended levels in many of them. Yes, you are less exposed to pollutants than the people in China, but the air you breathe is still polluted enough to deteriorate your health. Mediocre levels of long-term exposure is just as harmful as acute exposure, if not more harmful. Chronic exposure to pollutants like PM2.5, NOx, and O3 damage various parts of your body, especially your lungs and heart, slowly but surely. Not only does this shorten your life span, but it also reduces your quality of life by making you vulnerable to chronic diseases. So, don’t take the statistics and warnings for granted; take immediate action to protect yourself from the harms of air pollution in your area.

Learn how exactly NosyX helps to protect you from pollution.

Learn about the types of air pollutants and why they are harmful.

Learn how air pollution can manifest in different parts of your body.

[1] Roberts, Michelle (23 February 2016). "Pollution linked to 40,000 deaths a year" – via

[2] Butler, Patrick. “Urban Populations in South-East at Greatest Risk from Air Pollution.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 Jan. 2020, 

[3] Cameletti, Michela. “The Effect of Corona Virus Lockdown on Air Pollution: Evidence from the City of Brescia in Lombardia Region (Italy).” Atmospheric environment (Oxford, England : 1994) vol. 239 (2020): 117794. doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2020.117794


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