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The scandal of Europe's polluted skies - and the communities suffering the consequences

Witness Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Hans von der Brelie
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400,000 people on the European continent die prematurely, every year. Why? It’s the dirty air they breathe in European cities that kills them.


It’s a staggering number that triggered my latest research for EuronewsWitness: 400,000 people on the European continent die prematurely, every year. Why? It’s the dirty air they breathe in European cities that kills them.

I was shocked by the sheer size of this number. How can this be?

For years, the European Commission has been launching infringement procedures against EU member States, including France. The pollution burden is much too high. Levels of harmful substances are sky-rocketing above legal limits, triggering health problems and shortening the life expectancy of many people living in big French cities, such as Paris, Grenoble, Strasbourg, Marseille - and Lyon.

Monitoring air quality with ATMO

Downloading an app called ATMO I take a walk in Lyon – a city that’s renowned across Europe for its traffic jams. The highway to the sunny south cuts through the heart of the city. My ATMO app gives me real-time information about each street I walk in.

It’s a breathtaking experience, colours switch from orange bad air to dark red: very bad air. It’s a good day: no purple shows up. Get out as quick as you can…

Traffic Pollution

I have an appointment with the Lyon based singer-songwriter Renaud Pierre, meeting him while he walks his son to school. The classrooms are next to the Croix-Rousse tunnel, channelling heavy traffic into the city centre.

“The problem,” Renaud tells me. “Is the 47.000 cars passing through this tunnel every day. And on top of that, there are even more cars, driving down the banks of the River Rhône. All those vehicles bring in an enormous amount of air pollution. We want politicians to take this seriously.”

Renaud and school director Pascal Barbier take me to the measuring station in the schoolyard, close to the tunnel exit. The nitrogen dioxide values are skyrocketing. Barbier decided to close the yard – children are no longer allowed to play here. Together with other parents and action groups, Renaud helped trigger legal action against the city and the State.

Links to cancer

Is there really a proven link between air pollution and people dying prematurely?

I meet Thomas Coudon at the cancer research centre, Léon Berard. Together with a team of young scientists, he is trying to understand better the links between dirty air and cancer. And, yes, there is a link.

“Particulate matter pollution and diesel engines are classified as causing cancer,” Coudon confirms.

Low emission zones

More and more citizens are fed up with the bad air quality. That’s reflected in local election results. A growing number of big cities, such as Lyon and its agglomeration, are now governed by green parties.

But the dirty heritage from the past cannot be cleaned up overnight.

“Why the Lyon city air is so dirty?” I ask the president of the Lyon Metropolitan area, Bruno Bernard.

Bernard blames “a lack of action by political decision-makers such as the French State” – and former local authorities not having taken action in time.

Low emission zones should be set up. In order to get polluting vehicles out from the city centre.”
Bruno Bernard
President of the Lyon Metropolitan area

But what should be done next, I want to know.

“Low emission zones should be set up,” Bernard says. “In order to get out polluting vehicles from the city centre.”

Bernard and his team are working on a precise timetable, including an end to diesel engines in the heart of the city by 2026.


Check out air pollution levels in your city

Air quality in Europe 2021 report

RESPIRE - Association Nationale pour l’Amélioration de la Qualité de l’Air et la Défense des Victimes de la Pollution

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