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The health impacts of air pollution have been known for some time, and the European Commission is currently taking legal action against several European cities for failing to meet air quality standards. The impact of poor air quality on humans is normally measured via the number of premature deaths per year caused by respiratory difficulties, but recently the independent climate research institute Berkeley Earth has sought to equate air quality with cigarette smoking as a measure it believes the public can better relate to.
Using Berkeley Earth’s methodology, T&E has been able to equate the equivalent number of cigarettes to breathing the polluted air pollution in Europe’s top 10 tourist destinations (based on the levels of microparticulates, PM2.5, in the air). The worst cities are Istanbul and Prague, where the air quality is so bad that it amounts to people in those cities effectively smoking four cigarettes in a four-day break. The same trip to Milan is like smoking three cigarettes, London is 2.75, and a trip to Paris, Rome or Vienna amounts to smoking two cigarettes.
T&E’s diesel and air quality coordinator, Jens Müller, said: ‘When air pollution is bad, we are told to avoid eating or exercising outside. But walking around cities and eating on restaurant terraces is what city breaks are all about. Right now, tourists, including kids, are effectively being forced to smoke.’
T&E has drawn up a postcard showing how many cigarettes per long weekend (four-day stay) one would effectively smoke in Europe’s 10 most popular but polluted cities. Yet even these figures could be deceptively low, as there is growing evidence that authorities frequently rig monitoring stations to hide bad results, placing them in parks, calm streets or switching them off altogether. The Commission is taking the Romanian and Belgian governments to court for such behaviour, and citizens’ groups have launched monitoring projects in response.
Müller added: ‘The data we have used is based upon official data updated in early August and therefore represents the danger in the summer of 2018. City authorities need to be careful – in surveys, Europeans cite air pollution as the second highest environmental concern, and research suggests tourists are shunning Hong Kong due to its bad air. It means that if EU cities don’t get a grip on their poor air quality, they could start to see a fall in tourist numbers and revenues.’
Media interest to the T&E figures has been very strong, which confirms that using the number of cigarettes smoked is indeed a measure the public can better relate to than premature deaths per year. The British mass circulation newspaper Daily Mail recalibrated the numbers to produce the headline ‘A year living in London? You might as well smoke 251 cigarettes’, while the French daily Le Parisien likened air quality to being ‘a victim of passive smoking from being sat next to an inveterate smoker’.
Research by the Commission shows that cars are the main source of particulate matter in cities during summer months. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), particulate matter, which is also emitted by industry, agriculture and households, is responsible for 400,000 premature deaths every year.