At least 140 deaths a year in Milan are caused by the repeated high levels of atmospheric pollution.
This is the conclusion drawn by the EpiAir project, running since 2007 and promoted by the national centre for prevention and control of diseases in the ministry of health. The air breathed in Italy’s major cities is always sick and often lethal, claim the researchers, who collected data from ten cities including Milan.
“Even today, after years of alarms and fines imposed by the EU authorities, residents of Italy continue to fall sick and die in silence,” their report begins. “Urban atmospheric pollution, mostly caused by traffic, has again been confirmed as an environmental problem of absolute significance for public health in Italian cities,” said Prof. Francesco Forastiere of the Lazio regional health service, coordinator of the EpiAir project.
Levels of PM10 micro-particles have been monitored constantly above the legal maximum level of 40 µg/m3, levels of nitrogen dioxide always above the same legal threshold, and levels of ozone “substantially higher” that recommended levels at various times, dependent on the weather.
Every increase of 10 in, for example, the PM10 level leads to an increase of 0.69 per cent in the death statistics, or another seven people killed every thousand, explained Forastiere.
In a city like Milan, with 10,000 deaths per year from natural causes and a PM10 level of 20 µg/m3 over the legal limit, this works out at 140 avoidable deaths every year. Nitrogen dioxide has an even harsher effect, with an increase of 0.99 per cent – or another 10 deaths per thousand – for every 10 units increase. Most of these deaths are from respiratory diseases.
Ozone, the third pollutant monitored in the project, can cause up to 2.78 per cent increase in mortality rates, he warns. Even without arriving at a fatal level, this pollution causes a strong increase in hospitalisation for respiratory ills, including especially asthma, particularly among children.
The project also studied the effect of various local measures taken to combat pollution – car-sharing, restricted traffic zones, pedestrian areas, bike lanes, incentives for public transport and electric cars. But these seemed to have little effect on the constant rise in vehicle traffic, much higher than the European norm. “Not only that,” complained Forastiere: “we monitored considerable difficulty in putting these measures into effect, and a lack of checks. So in this situation, it’s easy to presume that the impact on urban air quality of these local policies is still very limited.”
The project concludes that the way forward is to adopt preventive policies which can be reliably measured on the spot.