Summer tourists ‘forced to smoke’ in top European cities

City breaks are supposed to be refreshing. But tourists are being warned that spending a long weekend in Europe’s 10 most popular but polluted cities could have the same health impacts as smoking between one and four cigarettes.

Graphic by T&E, based on these figures. Download full res. Also ES, DK, DE, PL.

T&E crunched numbers from various sources to reveal the health impact of visiting Europe’s 10 most popular European cities this summer. The parallel between air pollution and smoking cigarettes is based on research by Berkeley Earth, which focuses on fine particulate (PM2.5) – the most commonly used measure of air pollution levels. While months-old data is easy to find, this is the first time, T&E believes, that tourism figures and real time air quality data has been combined to give vacationers a heads-up on the risk they face this summer.

T&E air quality and diesel 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 more or less forced to smoke, in terms of the health impacts.”

Even small amounts of air pollution can damage our hearts, according to research published last week. Yet pollution may be much worse than recognised officially. This is because authorities frequently rig monitoring stations to hide bad results, placing them in parks, calm streets or switching them off altogether. The European Commission is taking the Romanian and Belgian governments to court for such behaviour. Citizen groups have launched monitoring projects in response. These reveal air quality far worse than official data in Italy, Germany, Bulgaria and Belgium. Meanwhile, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Romania face billions in fines for breaching EU air pollution standards.

Tourism bosses should take note. Air pollution is the second highest environmental concern for Europeans (see page 8) and research suggests tourists are shunning Hong Kong due to its bad air. Summer is the busiest period for city trips in Barcelona and London.

Jens Müller said: “City bosses need to get a grip on air pollution or risk a tourist backlash. Cars are the worst cause of air pollution in cities during the summer. Cheating carmakers should be given a deadline to truly clean up the mess they created. If they fail, polluting cars should quickly be banned from cities to protect residents.”

Cars are the main source of particulate matter in cities during summer months. Carmakers consistently break fuel efficiency laws by releasing vehicles more polluting than they should be. Industry claims modern diesels are clean, but checks reveal this is false, with most emitting up to 18 times the legal limit of NO2 pollution. As a result, cities such as Paris, London, Hamburg and Milan have begun restricting diesels.