Europe’s Politicians Urged to Tackle Air Pollution Crisis by WHO's Maria Neira

Europe’s Politicians Urged to Tackle Air Pollution Crisis by WHO's Maria Neira
Photo by Liz Pullan Pattathy / Unsplash

According to Maria Neira, Director of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, politicians across Europe have a "moral responsibility" to address the continent's alarmingly high levels of air pollution. Her comments come on the heels of a comprehensive investigation by The Guardian which found that almost the entire European population—98% to be precise—lives in areas exceeding WHO guidelines for PM2.5 particles. These microscopic pollutants are linked to approximately 400,000 deaths a year.

“As a medical doctor, I feel compelled to stress that we’re talking about strokes, heart disease, asthma, lung cancer, diabetes, low birth weight, preterm births, and cognitive decline,” Neira said, emphasizing the devastating health impacts of air pollution. “Any time you breathe, you are taking in something toxic, which can severely harm your body.”

A Call for Immediate Action

Neira stated that immediate action is necessary from European politicians to mitigate the health crisis precipitated by air pollution. She argued that it would be unthinkable for Europe to provide 98% of its population with dangerously contaminated water. Therefore, the same standard should apply to air quality.

“Having the knowledge we have [on the health impacts of air pollution], there is a clear and absolute moral responsibility to act,” she added.

European Parliament’s Vote: Too Little, Too Late?

Last week, the European Parliament voted to adopt WHO guidelines on PM2.5 levels, but implementation will not take place until 2035—a timeline Neira regards as insufficient.

“We strongly urge countries to act swiftly. Delaying these crucial measures will have immediate and severe consequences for people's well-being and the planet,” Neira cautioned.

The Guardian's Investigation Reveals a Widespread Crisis

The Guardian’s investigation also highlighted that Eastern Europe is faring significantly worse than its Western counterparts, with North Macedonia standing out as the worst-hit country. In this Balkan nation, almost two-thirds of the population live in areas with PM2.5 levels more than four times higher than WHO guidelines.

Even countries traditionally considered to be environmentally conscious are struggling. In the United Kingdom, 75% of residents live in areas where PM2.5 levels are up to twice the recommended WHO limits.

A Visible Pandemic and a Social Inequality Issue

Javi López, a Spanish Member of the European Parliament, called the situation a “visible pandemic” in Europe. He underscored the importance of addressing not only public health concerns but also social inequalities exacerbated by disparate access to clean air.

“A discussion about health should also be a discussion about inequalities across Europe—between member states and social classes. This should be a top priority for administrations,” said López.

UK's Backpedaling on Environmental Measures

In a seemingly retrograde step, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the weakening of several environmental protections, including diluting plans to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2030. The decision drew strong criticism from London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has been pushing for aggressive policies to improve air quality in the British capital.

“To row back on environment measures at a time when we are dealing with a climate emergency makes no sense. It shows they are climate delayers,” said Khan.

The Moral Responsibility and the Path Ahead

Maria Neira’s comments have resonated across political and social spheres in Europe, where there is increasing recognition of the air pollution crisis as a moral issue that requires urgent attention. Given the compelling data and growing public concern, European governments are under mounting pressure to take substantive measures. The stakes couldn’t be higher: hundreds of thousands of lives are lost each year due to polluted air, a tragedy that is preventable but requires political will and swift action.

In her closing remarks, Neira said, “People often argue that our guidelines are too strict or ambitious. But what is ambitious about wanting fewer people to be sick? Our objective should be to protect human lives. This is not ambition; it is a moral duty.”

As Europe grapples with this multi-faceted crisis affecting its health, environment, and social fabric, the message from experts like Neira is clear: the time for action is now, and the cost of inaction is far too great. Politicians have both the tools and information needed to address this urgent issue. What remains to be seen is whether they will fulfill their moral responsibility to act in the best interests of their constituents and future generations.