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Where are the most dangerous air pollution zones in Europe?

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

Zones meant to protect citizens in Europe from air pollution don’t always do so. A survey has revealed where the most and least dangerous zones lie.


Air quality is a major concern for many European citizens, especially in cities with a lot of traffic where the main air pollutants are PM10, ozone and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Vehicles, especially diesel vehicles, are the main source. To protect the health of citizens and the environment, European legislation sets thresholds for levels of different air pollutants in ambient air.

“Euro” standards for light-duty vehicles (cars and vans) and for heavy-duty vehicles (trucks, buses and coaches) are also set for vehicle emissions. It was the scandal of cheating the stated emissions of their vehicles that cost German diesel vehicle manufacturers dearly last year, but Member States don’t always comply with regulations either.

The European Commission has launched infringement procedures against a number of states for breaching air quality limits on streets, including London, Belgium and Spain, and has referred six to the Court of Justice of the European Union, including France and Italy.

Low Emission Zones

Low Emission Zones (LEZs), sometimes known as environmental zones, are areas where the most polluting vehicles are regulated, usually by limiting vehicles with higher emissions from entering the area; in some the most polluting vehicles have to pay more to enter the zone.

Fines are issued for infringements. The most expensive fines are in Denmark, where driving into a zone without the required environmental badge can cost you up to DKK 20,000 (AU$4300) for a truck driver. Fines up to 2000 euros (AU$3209) are imposed in Austria and Great Britain.

The Green-Zones portal has determined which European environmental zones were the most dangerous in the summer of 2019 for concentrations of the potentially carcinogenic gas ozone.

The increasing danger of street-level ozone

Ozone is increasingly produced in the summer months in cities due to higher climate change-related temperatures. It is formed by the reaction of nitrogen oxides, oxygen and high UV radiation, and is a high risk for human health.

At a concentration of about 200 µg/m³, symptoms such as tear irritation, asthma, mucous membrane irritation in the throat and bronchi, headaches, increased cough irritation and deterioration of lung function can occur.

It is therefore mandatory to inform the local population when values exceed 180 µg/m³.

The most dangerous cities

Not all zones inform the population about high pollution levels, leaving citizens at severe risk. You’d want to avoid the German city of Limburg in summer, as it ranks first among the most dangerous environmental zones in Europe.

On 26 June this year the European maximum ozone value of 251 µg/m³ was reached as a one hour average value and a no driving ban was imposed.

Limburg was followed by the German Ruhr area and Wiesbaden, where ozone levels of 244-246 µg/m³ were reached in the summer of 2019 without informing the public.

And the German city of Darmstadt and the three Dutch cities of Arnhem, Delft and Rijswijk still allowed people to drive unhindered with ozone levels of 223-230 µg/m³ (hourly average in micrograms/m³).

Driving bans should be imposed in European environmental zones not only on particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, but also on excessively high ozone levels, but this currently only happens in a few countries, so that extremely high ozone levels can occur unhindered in most environmental zones.

Where are the most beautiful environmental zones in Europe?

If you wanted to flee the danger zones, you could travel to the most beautiful ones, where both your health and mental well-being would be rewarded. These happen to lie in France.

Paris ranks top, just ahead of the World Heritage Site of the Historic Old Town of Prague. The French capital not only has three different environmental zones (ZCR, ZPA, ZFE) with strict restrictions on all vehicle types, but also numerous tourist attractions.

The Old Town of Lyon, which is a UNESCO cultural heritage site thanks to its many winding streets and the Renaissance district, and the area around the Freedom Square in the “capital of mustard” Dijon, are ranked tenth and ninth among the most beautiful environmental zones in Europe.

In both French cities, the so-called ZPA/ZPAd zones have been established for more than two years. When air pollution peaks (particulate matter, ozone, NOx), these zones are activated within a maximum of 24 hours, banning many vehicles of all type classes.

The urban canals of Amsterdam, the UNESCO heritage of Vienna’s old town, the promenade of the new harbour in Copenhagen, the baroque old town in Heidelberg, Germany and the “Little Venice” in Annecy, France are also beautiful as well as healthy.

The largest environmental zones

The largest environmental zone in Europe lies in Lower Austria and covers 20,000 km², at its maximum stretching 125 km to 165 km from north-south to east-west.

In France LEZs cover an entire department, and so also cover large areas. These zones are mainly activated when concentrations of particulate matter and ozone rise above a certain level according to weather conditions. But watch out – they have no entry or exit signs and so are not visible to travellers driving through, meaning that fines are therefore inevitable and applied to all vehicle types.

A Crit’Air vignette (badge) is mandatory in these zones, but does not automatically entitle the driver to enter the zone; it depends on the degree of air pollution.

Burgenland in Austria has the tenth largest environmental zone in Europe. The permanently established environmental zone covers the entire land with an area of 3962 km². In this area there are driving bans for trucks of the EURO standards 0-2, which are obliged to affix an environmental badge. It is still optional for passenger cars.

The longest-established LEZs

The longest-established environmental zone in Europe is in Stockholm. The zone in the Swedish capital was established on 18 June 1995 and now covers the entire city centre. Buses and trucks over 3.5 tonnes with the EURO standards 0-4 are banned from traffic.

In case of infringement a fine of 100 euros is imposed. Cars are currently not yet affected by the ban.

The environmental zones in Germany and the Netherlands are the next most established. The Netherlands’ was set up in 2007. Berlin, Cologne and Hanover, set up zones in January 2008.

Great Britain ranks tenth among the oldest environmental zones in Europe with a permanent Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in London. This extends over 1584 km², and consists of 32 authority districts and the City of London. It covers a population of over 13.6 million people who live in the Greater London area. All vehicle types must be registered before entering the environmental zone.

David Thorpe is the author of the books The ‘One Planet’ Life and the new ‘One Planet’ Cities. From October he is teaching an online Post-Graduate Certificate in “One Planet” Governance.

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