March 6, 2024

by Francesco Ramella

Is there an air pollution emergency in Northern Italy? That’s what you might have thought if you had read the news or watched tv a couple of weeks ago.

A Swiss air quality website (owned by IQAIR, a company that produces air purifiers) ranks Milan as the third worst city in the world for pollution. According to Guido Lanzani, the director for air quality at Arpa Lombardy (the regional environmental protection agency), those figures come from a variety of sources, change with the hour and are not reliable.

Nevertheless, it is true that the concentration of fine particulate, the main pollutant, was indeed much higher than the yearly average. This is not surprising. In fact, air quality is always much worse in winter for two reasons. First, particulate emissions due to home heating are much higher than in the other seasons and responsible for about 70 percent of all emission in this period. Second, there are prolonged periods with little or no wind. In those days the emissions accumulate in the atmosphere and the concentration of pollutants rises quickly. It has been estimated that, due to its extremely disadvantageous orographic and climatic configuration, the Po basin is three to five time less efficient in diluting and dispersing pollutant compared to regions north of the Alps.

In brief, there is nothing strange if Milan and Northern Italy are more polluted in winter than in summer, and more polluted than most European cities and regions. Yet, Milan and Northern Italy are also much less polluted than in the past. Moreover, the situation has improved significantly over the years. For example, the peak value of PM10 (the main pollutant) registered at the “Milano – Verziere” sampling station in February 2024 was 110 309 µg/m3. In 2001, the same station registered a maximum almost three times higher (309 µg/m3).

Moreover, the peak values registered in February 2024 are about half the average value of the entire year in the 70’s And present average concentration of fine particles in the subway is between two and three times higher than the figures registred in Milan streets. Yet, nobody seems to care too much about it.

As a matter of fact, air quality has improved significantly throughout Europe, including Italy. But it is largely unknown. According to a survey carried out by Eurobarometer in 2019, 58 percent of the European citizens think that air pollution deteriorated in the last ten years and another 28 percent believe that it stayed the same (in Italy the shares are respectively 74 percent and 21 percent). Only 10 percent of Europeans know that things are getting better. The figure drops to 3% among Italians.

The situation has not improved because consumers’ behaviour has changed: we drive more, we consume more, we keep heating ourselves in the winter and now in growing numbers we cool our homes and offices in the summer. The key has been technology driven by the EU regulation. Today’s cars emissions are roughly one twentieth of what they were 50 years ago.

Nevertheless, despite this remarkable improvement, many point out that people are still dying from air pollution. The European Environmental Agency estimates that there are still more than 300,000 deaths in the EU each year due to bad air quality (50,000 in Italy).

As stated a few years ago by the UK Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, “it is not plausible to think of the figure of ‘attributable’ deaths as enumerating an actual group of individuals whose death is attributable to air pollution alone, i.e. the ‘‘victims’ of outdoor air pollution”, as it happens in the case of car or work accidents. However, it is true that air pollution in the long run increases the risk of dying for those affected by some pathologies and in particular of a cardiovascular nature. The relative risk, that is the increase of mortality that today can be attributed to air pollution in every European country is tiny, around 1.02 and 1.05 . To compare, the relative risk of developing a lung cancer in smokers versus non-smokers is between 6 and 8. According to an analysis by the French Academy of Sciences, the small size of the risk gives rise to unreliable estimates of the effects, which are largely influenced by the methodology used. In fact, some publications find no short or long term evidence of an increase in mortality due to pollution.

Surely, air pollution doesn’t represent a major risk for health in Europe. In regard to Lombardy, life expectancy is higher than in most other EU regions and three years longer than in the least affluent regions in southern Italy.

To conclude, air matters, but wealth, genes and lifestyles are more important. That is why one should pay attention to the cost of improving air quality. We could certainly obtain better outcomes by stopping all human activities. Yet, it would be a disaster and life expectancy would be lowered. Stricter regulation should be adopted only if the benefits outweigh the costs.

Choices about the optimum level of pollution should be made at local level and take into account the specific conditions of each area. They should not be decided by the EU and set equal everywhere. In Northern Italy, the limit has been exceeded even in 2020 in the period of the lockdown when car traffic was 85% below the average.

One air quality doesn’t fit all.