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Image: Lusa

Fine particles in air “could have killed 2,100 people” in Portugal

European Environment Agency highlights hazards of air pollution 

Following a deeply disturbing and little reported study of air pollution around Lisbon airport, the European Environment Agency has released its own report, suggesting as many as 2,100 deaths in Portugal in 2021 “could be attributed to exposure to particulate matter” (meaning air pollution).

The story being reported by Lusa today does not go into the areas in which these deaths may have occurred – but if one refers to the study released four years ago, concentrating on ultrafine particulate matter, “results indicate that the particle count increases with the number of flights, and decreases with the distance to the runway and the altitude of aircrafts”. Ergo, these deaths may well have been in areas close to the country’s principal airports.

Lusa explains that “according to the report Air pollution hazard to human health: the burden of disease 2023, air pollution is “currently the largest environmental risk factor in Europe” and remains the main cause of “poor health and contributes in particular to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases“.

“The document contains information for 2021 and concludes that, in that year, 2,100 deaths in Portugal could be attributed to exposure to suspended particles, also known as fine particles.

“This estimate also points to the loss of a total of “20,700 years of life” in Portugal due to exposure to air pollution, particularly in large urban centres.

“In Poland, exposure to the same type of particles was responsible for 47,300 deaths in 2021, the highest number in the whole of Europe. This was followed by Italy (46,800 deaths) and Germany (32,300 deaths). Ireland was the country with the fewest deaths recorded due to this exposure to pollution (460).

“In total, across Europe, 253,000 deaths can be attributed to exposure to fine particles.

“The European Environment Agency warned that despite the progress made between 2005 and 2021, with a 41% reduction in the number of deaths from exposure to fine particles, the levels of pollution in the air are still higher than recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“Among the diseases caused by exposure to these particles are cardiovascular diseases, heart attacks, diabetes mellitus, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and asthma.

“The European Environment Agency believes that decarbonisation and environmental policies need to be strengthened, making it possible, for example, to reduce the number of cars in cities – the places where pollution is most concentrated – and to work to effectively reduce energy poverty – the use of wood and coal to heat homes is responsible for releasing some of the pollution into the air”, says Lusa.

Curiously, the latest report does not refer to the neurological damage ultrafine particulates appear able to precipitate. These range from neurological disorders to fetal development and cognitive problems in children, claimed the 2019 study.

Study author Margarida Lopes stressed at the time that “until a few years ago, no one even suspected that particles so minuscule could have such a large impact on health”. Their measurement – and recognition of their prejudicial effects on public health – is “recent” and there is a “growing preoccupation, due to their direct absorption by the body, through the respiratory system”. ND