December 10, 2019

A longer life thanks to the EU

By Barend ter Haar.

While incidents fill the front pages, life-changing developments often go almost unnoticed. Most Dutchmen will have missed the news that, thanks to European legislation, they can expect to live on average six years longer than in 1980. This is the essence of the article Effects of European emission reductions on air quality in the Netherlands and the associated health effects.[1]

In this article researchers of four Dutch research institutes compared two scenarios.[2]The first scenario looked at the probable health effects if no European air quality policy would have been in place. The second scenario looked at the actual emissions after European measures were taken. 

The consequences of the two scenarios for the health of Dutchmen are dramatically different. If no European air quality policies had been adopted from 1980 onwards, air pollution in the Netherlands would have almost doubled. In reality, thanks to European regulations, air pollution, in particular of fine particulate matter (in Dutch: fijnstof), more than halved. Because of the avoided pollution the average life expectancy of the Dutch people increased by about six years. Six years difference, that means that without the European rules for soot filters on chimneys and catalysts in cars etc., our current life expectancy would be the same as in Mexico and Morocco. 

One might think that in the absence of European regulation, the Netherlands could have taken measures on a national basis. However, such measures would have been far less effective, because air pollution does not stop at borders. More than half (56%) of the drop in air pollution in the Netherlands was caused by reductions in emissions outside the Netherlands. In other words: local measures taken, on the basis of European regulations, in Germany, Belgium, the UK and France are saving thousands of lives in the Netherlands.

Although air pollution in the Netherlands (and in Europe) is now a smaller problem than for example in New Delhi, where people live ten years shorter due to air pollution, it is still a very huge problem.[3]As one of the authors of the article said: “The current air quality still costs us nine to twelve months of our lives.”[4]

The impact of air pollution on our health may be even worse than that. Recent research indicates that almost every cell in the body may be affected by dirty air and that therefore the number of health problems linked to air pollution could be far higher than previously thought.[5]


[1]Atmospheric Environment;Volume 221, 15 January 2020

[2]National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht (IMAU), Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). 

[3]Delhiites’ life expectancy reduced by 10 years due to pollution”in The Hinduof 10 November 2019

[4]https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2019/11/12/rivm-zes-jaar-langer-leven-door-schonere-lucht

[5]Impact of air pollution on health may be far worse than thought”in The Guardianof 27 Nov 2019

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