Air pollution in large cities: a French and European scandal

It was a striking figure that sparked my research for this new issue of Euronews Witness: 400,000 people on the European continent die prematurely each year due to the polluted air they breathe in European cities. I was shocked by their number. How is it possible ?

European Commission launches infringement procedures

This is one of the most serious statistics compiled by the European Environment Agency, which also puts an interactive map online comparing air quality in 323 cities in 41 countries on the European continent. The east, but also areas of southern Europe are covered with red dots, air pollution alerts concern large areas of territory. Among the least well-off countries, Croatia, but also northern Italy, Poland and Bulgaria. But in the end, I chose to focus on France, which is not the worst nation in terms of air quality in its major cities, but a country that has made little progress in this area in recent years. decades.

The European Commission has been launching infringement procedures for years against Member States, including France, on the subject of air pollution. The concentrations of pollutants are too high, the levels of harmful substances exceed the authorized thresholds causing health problems and shortening the life expectancy of many inhabitants of French metropolises such as Paris, Grenoble, Strasbourg, Marseille and Lyon.

Armed with the Air to Go application launched by Atmo Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, I walk the streets of Lyon, a city known in Europe for its congested traffic. The Autoroute du Soleil which joins the south of France crosses its city center. On my smartphone, I have real-time information on the air quality at the location where I am. The indices go from orange (bad) to dark red (very bad). Luckily, that day, I will not see a sector marked in purple, the worst category.

Excessive pollution in the courtyard of a school in Lyon

I have an appointment with a singer-songwriter based in Lyon, Renaud Pierre, as he takes his son to school. The classes of the Michel Servet primary school are located next to one of the entrances to the Croix-Rousse tunnel which brings heavy traffic to the city centre. “The problem,” indicates Renaud, “It’s that there are 47,000 vehicles that pass through the tunnel every day, not to mention all those that pass on the quays of the Rhône and which cause enormous pollution. We would like politicians to take up the issue to make so that the city is breathable,” he points out.

With associations of parents and inhabitants, Renaud Pierre organizes demonstrations, he even composed a song which calls into question the authorities accused of not having done enough to fight against air pollution. The director of the school Pascal Barbier supports him. He has his idea when asked what a concrete solution could be: “It would be to reduce traffic on the banks with, in particular, the establishment of a tramway which would reduce the place of the car on the banks of the Rhône,” he said.

The two men show me the measuring station in the school yard near the tunnel. Nitrogen dioxide concentrations on site are shockingly high. Pascal Barbier has decided to close the courtyard, children are no longer allowed to play there. With other parents and associations, Renaud Pierre has initiated legal proceedings against the municipality and the State.

What is the correlation between air pollution and cancer?

To learn more about the link between air pollution and premature death, I met in Lyon, Thomas Coudon at the Center Léon Bérard, a reference establishment in the fight against cancer. With a team of young researchers, he is trying to better understand the correlation between air pollution and cancer. And according to him, the answer is clear: “The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified exposure to air pollution as carcinogenic to humans and within the category of pollutants classified as definite carcinogens are fine particulates and car exhaust diesel engines,” he points out. The link between air pollution and lung cancer is well known. But is the air of Lyon the cause of other types of cancer such as breast cancer? This is what Marie Ramel-Delobel, colleague of Thomas Coudon, is studying with other researchers from France and Italy, as part of her thesis. To support their work, they take readings every day, morning and evening, over several weeks. “to assess the difference in exposure that exists between daily modes of travel,” she specifies.

“We must create low emission zones”

More and more citizens are getting tired of their stale air. This is indicated by the results of the local elections. More and more large French cities like Lyon and its agglomeration are managed by the Greens. But you can’t get rid of pollution with ancient roots in a day. “Why is the air in Lyon so polluted?” This is the question we put to the environmentalist president of the metropolis of Lyon, Bruno Bernard.

The chosen one points the finger, “a lack of action by the public authorities, by the French State, which has been condemned. We must create low-emission zones to get the most polluting vehicles out of the heart of the agglomeration, with in particular the end of diesel engines as soon as 2026,” he underlines while his team predicts that by 2026, more than 70% of the vehicles authorized today will be prohibited in the low emission zone of Lyon. Measures that are not to everyone’s taste, especially among professionals who have to travel by road in the city, such as craftsmen. Some fear having to pay tens of thousands of euros to buy electric vehicles to replace their diesel model and appeal: “Who will foot the bill?”


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