Pollution typeas and improving Air Quality in Europe
Europe's air quality has improved significantly over the past 60 years. Nevertheless, it has not reached the air quality by regulations defined by law and required by people. Through an expanding network of monitoring stations we learn more and more about air pollution.
Today we have much broader knowledge about our environment. Air quality testing stations show in almost real time the chemical composition of the air and how it relates to the long-term trends. Nowadays we have a much clearer overview of air pollution sources in Europe as well.
Europe's air quality has improved significantly over the past 60 years. A number of air pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and benzene concentrations significantly decreased. The lead concentration decreased sharply too, and there is already below the limits specified in law.
Contrary to the results, Europe has not reached the air quality defined by law and required by people. Today fine particles and ozone are the two most dangerous pollutants for human health and environment.
Not all material in the air are pollutants. Air pollution could be defined as the presence of certain pollutants in the atmosphere at a level, which has a negative impact on human health, environment and cultural heritage (buildings, monuments and materials). Law attends only pollution from human sources, but the pollution is defined more broader in other contexts.
Not all air pollutants come from human sources. Several natural phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions, forest fires and dust storms also emit air pollutants to the atmosphere. It is usually easier to measure and track the contribution of human activity to create air pollutants. The level of human activity significantly differs depending on the contaminants. Fuel burning is one of the major contributors that occur in road transport and households and even power generation. Agriculture is also a major contributing factor. Approximately 90% of ammonia emissions and about 80% of methane emissions derives from the agricultural activity.
For European citizens, the fine particulate materials and ozone cause serious health risk and reduce life expectancy. These are light particles that are able to float in the air. Some of these particles are so small, that they can not only penetrate deeply into the lungs, but get into the bloodstream as well. Some particles are emitted directly into the atmosphere. Other are created as a result of chemical reactions between gases – such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia – and volatile organic compounds.
Ozone is specific, highly reactive form of oxygen, which consists of three oxygen atoms. The ozone protects us from dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the Sun in one of the upper layers of the atmosphere, the stratosphere. But in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, in the troposphere, ozone is actually a major pollutant affecting public health and nature.
Ozone located close to the ground is created as a result of chemical reactions between certain gases – such as nitrogen oxides – and non-methane volatile organic compounds. In its formation methane and carbon monoxide also plays a role.
How can cause short-lived gases air quality problems?
Many short-lived gases aretoxic to human health and vegetation. Besides, they easily convert to other pollutants in the atmosphere, and some are broken up to new compounds. Like nitrogen dioxide, forming by burning gasoline or natural gas and coal is electric power plants. When sunlight reach nitrogen dioxide, it decomposes to two new compounds: nitrogen monoxide and atomic oxygen, which is simply a single oxygen atom. The atomic oxygen reacts with molecular oxygen (two oxygen atoms linked to O2 molecule – the result is ozone (O3), which is toxic to ecosystems and human health, and is a major pollutant of all industrialized countries.
Information about air pollution
Through an expanding network of monitoring stations we learn more and more about air pollution. Air quality monitoring stations near busy roads or public parks often remain unnoticed. However, these insignificant-looking boxes contain equipment that is regularly taking air samples in a given place, the main air pollutants are measured as the level of the exact concentration of ozone and fine particulate matter, and automatically transmit the data in a database. This information is often already available online in a few minutes after sampling.
National regulation on natiopnal and European level deal with the main air pollutants. For these pollutants extensive monitoring networks have been set up across Europe in order to check the air quality at each site, whether it corresponds to different legal standards and health guidelines. These stations record a wide range of air pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, lead, ozone, fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, benzene, volatile organic compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and transmit it at varying frequencies.
The European Environment Agency (in Copenhagen) gathers more than 7,500 European air quality monitoring station measurements of air quality data in its database. In 2010, for example, nearly 2,000 stations continuously measured the concentration of ozone in the layer of air close to the ground, and reported data hourly. Such near-real-time measurements can serve as warning and alarm systems in case of a major pollution incident.
In Hungary, 52 National Air Pollution Test Network (OLM) test stations in 31 towns and cities continuously measure the quantity of major air pollutants (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, dust particles (PM10), benzene) as well as other meteorological parameters necessary for evaluation (wind direction and speed, temperature, humidity). Eleven of these stations are in Budapest, another four mobile measurement stations are available to perform periodic air quality testing.
Beyond the areas of air quality monitoring stations, air quality evaluation is based on modeling or a combination of modeling and measurements, including satellite observations as well.
The aim of the development of OLM (National Air Pollution Manual Test Network) is to monitor air quality in towns and small regions not tested with automatic online measurement stations. The development costs 1.2 billion HUF, and is realized with Swiss Contribution support. The Ministry of Rural Development develops manual test network by purchasing sampling units, laboratory equipment and two mobile measurement stations until the end of 2014.
The technology, essential improvements has crucial role in expanding our knowledge about the air we breathe.
Signals – study of The European Environment Agency (EEA), 2013