Pollution has killed 93,000 people in Spain in the last decade

Experts are calling for urgent action to tackle the problem, which causes more deaths than car accidents

Manuel Ansede
A traffic board on the M-30 informs drivers about the pollution protocol in Madrid
A traffic board on the M-30 informs drivers about the pollution protocol in MadridVíctor Sainz

“We must restrict traffic,” declares Cristina Linares, a biologist and researcher at the National Health School in Madrid. It is not a proposal but a desperate call for action. Linares’s team has just calculated the extent to which air pollution has caused premature deaths in Spain, leading to a daunting number of 93,000 over the last decade. This is the first study of its kind with data from all the Spanish provinces.

Major Spanish cities have systematically ignored the pollution regulations set by the EU in recent years. New investigations reveal the price of those excesses. Nitrogen dioxide alone is responsible for the preventable deaths of 6,085 people each year, according to a study published in Environment International. “There has been a trend toward diesel in Spanish vehicles, and diesel motors are the largest source of nitrogen dioxide,” explains Linares.

Nitrogen dioxide, which is released by engines and heating systems, poses “great health risks,” as it can worsen asthma and breathing problems, according to the World Health Organization. Brussels has an open case against Spain for its failure to comply with the established nitrogen dioxide limits, especially in Madrid and Barcelona. Last month, the European Commission decided not to take Spain before the EU Court of Justice, due to the current plans to counteract pollution presented by the cities of Madrid and Barcelona.

Nitrogen dioxide alone is responsible for the preventable deaths of 6,085 people each year

To the 6,085 annual deaths from nitrogen dioxide, another 499 are caused by tropospheric ozone, according to a second study published in Atmospheric Environment. Ozone in the troposphere is formed by a reaction between sunlight and industrial or car exhaust. Unlike ozone in the ozone layer, tropospheric ozone causes respiratory problems such as asthma and can cause lung diseases. Additionally, tropospheric ozone is a key ingredient in the formation of smog and toxic clouds in cities. A third study published in Environmental Pollution estimated that air pollutants such as VOCs and particulate matter cause the deaths of 2,683 people yearly.

The three studies analyzed data from 2000 to 2009 provided by the National Statistics Institute and the  Environment Ministry. They are the latest valid data sets according to the authors. “Three percent of Spain’s annual mortality is caused by this atmospheric pollution,” emphasizes Julio Díaz, head of the Epidemiology Department at the National Health School. This institute answers to the Carlos III Health Institute, affiliated with the Health and Economy ministries.

This mortality rate is eight times larger than the mortality caused by car accidents each year

Julio Díaz, Head of the Epidemiology Department in the National Health School

Díaz is astonished by the lack of awareness by authorities and society at large regarding air pollution and its health risks. “This mortality rate is eight times greater than the mortality caused by car accidents each year,” he warns.

Díaz’s team uses powerful tools and measuring devices to establish statistical relations between the peaks in contamination levels and the peaks in mortality. His three studies have only looked at mortality rates in the short term, meaning that his work does not include the longer-term deaths caused by cancer. The deaths, he insists, are only the tip of the iceberg.

“Premature deaths caused by pollution tend to affect older people more, but the most important consequence of the pollution is the decrease in overall life quality: an exacerbation of asthma and allergies, bronchitis in children, and an increase in viral infections,” explains Linares, who was picked to be part of the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Climate Change at the United Nations this year.

On December 29, 2016, Madrid became the first Spanish city to restrict traffic due to pollution, limiting the use of cars with an even license plate number. “Those are plans to comply with legislation, not plans to protect the health of the people,” says Díaz. “We are proposing structural methods to create lasting change, not short-term solutions.”

This scientist proposes additional efforts toward public transportation increasing the number of parking lots outside of cities to dissuade driving and preventing cars from entering cities “with tollbooths or some other way.” The new pollution protocol against nitrogen dioxide from the Madrid city council – which proposes limits to traffic in favor of the environment – is a “step in the right direction,” according to Díaz.

English version by Andres Cayuela.

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