Most Polluted Cities in Europe in 2021

Although outside of CO2 emissions and global warming we rarely think about air quality, it is actually a major issue worldwide. Air pollution is one of the leading causes of death around the world — the World Health Organization estimates that more than 4 million people die due to air pollution each year. Studies show almost 90% of humans across the world regularly breathe unclean, unsafe air.

Thankfully, the picture is a bit brighter in Europe with many countries in the European Union taking meaningful steps to curb pollution in major cities. According to the European Environment Agency (The EEA), air pollution causes more than 300,000 premature deaths across the Union each year. This is not to mention the litany of health complications and diseases.

One thing you need to be aware of, however: the European countries are very varied in their energy sources, climates, geographies, economies, policies, and more, and this has created a lot of divergence in pollution between European cities. In Europe, you’ll find some of the least polluted cities in the world, but you can also find really polluted cities that can at times rival China’s and India’s. In this article, we’ll go over the most polluted cities in Europe in 2021 according to up-to-date air quality data.

#1 Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Bulgaria is the poorest state in the EU on a per capita basis, and sadly, this has also reflected on the air quality in its major urban centres. Not only does Bulgaria’s second-largest city and its cultural capital, Plovdiv, rank as the most polluted city with the worst air quality in the EU consecutively for decades, but the country as a whole also suffers from poor air quality. Among the EU, Bulgaria leads in excess premature deaths due to air pollution per capita.

#2 Krakow, Poland

Poland is another country that has become popular for its poor air quality. The primary cause of air pollution in Poland comes from the fact that the overwhelming majority of the country’s electricity supply comes from coal. This is of particular concern in the winter due to the surging demand for electricity.

Krakow is of particular note in Poland, however. In a country known for its poor air quality, Krakow stands out for having exceptionally poor air quality. This is due to a few reasons:

polluted air is heavier than clean air, and since Krakow is situated in a valley, it amplifies air pollution.

– There are coal power plants situated close to the urban centre of Krakow

– The city is one of the larger, denser urban centres in Poland.

All of these act together to create one of the most polluted cities in Europe.

#3 Milan, Italy

The air pollution in Milan doesn’t particularly stand out from its surroundings. In fact, air pollution in Milan is often similar to and less than those of its surroundings. This might, naturally, lead to confusion as to why the city is on this list. The answer is simple: while Milan isn’t particularly special by Northern Italian standards, the region of Northern Italy itself is one of the most air-polluted regions in all of the EU.

Fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) refers to air pollutants that are detrimental to humans’ health. The ‘2.5’ in the name refers to the size of the particulate matter — they are 2.5 microns or less, and in large amounts, they can create a hazy, smoggy effect that’s somewhat visible.

Although PM 2.5 particles aren’t the only type of airborne particles that damage people’s health, one of the primary ways you can measure air pollution levels is by measuring the average concentration of PM 2.5 particles in the air.

We needed this background information to understand why Northern Italy is one of the most polluted regions in the European Union.


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According to a recently released 2021 report by the European Environment Agency, the annual mean concentration of PM 2.5 particles of Northern Italy was the second-worst in all of the EU with Poland coming first.

There are multiple reasons why Italy has particularly bad air quality:
– Italy constantly ignores EU laws and regulations surrounding air pollution with its government taking a negligent approach to the issue. The country even fails to produce up-to-date data measuring air quality in its major urban centres.
– The energy mix in Italy relies on far more fossil fuel compared to its Northern and Western neighbours.

Additionally, there are reasons why its Northern region fares worse despite being far more affluent than its South:
– The Northern region’s affluence actually is a reason for the more polluted air compared to the South. Diesel vehicles are particularly popular in Italy, and more people can afford them in the North than they do in the South, and this has led to an increase in air pollution.
Temperatures in the Southern region of Italy are moderated by the proximity to the Mediterranean sea. This means the summers aren’t too hot and the winters are generally mild. Italy’s Northern region, however, has a more continental climate with proximity to mountain ranges. This means far harsher winters that lead to rising energy demands.

And Milan, being one of the largest, most dense urban centres in Northern Italy, suffers from major pollution. And that’s not all. Milan is also impacted by a phenomenon called an ‘inversion’: this causes cold air to stick to the soil. And as we mentioned with Krakow, this heightens pollution. All of these variables act together to make Milan one of the most polluted major cities in all of Europe.

#4 London, the United Kingdom

Ever since Dickens published his novels detailing life in a dynamic, industrializing London, the city’s pollution, smog, and industrial waste have been etched into the popular consciousness of the English speaking world.

And although London has made amazing strides since the 1800s, the city is still the worst when talking about pollution levels in the UK.

Home to almost 15 million people in its metropolitan area, London remains one of the largest cities in Europe (behind only Moscow and Istanbul), and its population size dwarfs even some EU member states let alone cities.

It isn’t easy keeping a wealthy, 15-million-large city moving: transportation, electricity, heating all consistently release air pollutants, and due to how dense the city is, this naturally leads to a lot of air pollution.

These similar dynamics are why massive Indian and Chinese cities consistently rank as having the worst air quality in the world. London is nowhere as bad as Beijing or Delhi, but it is nothing to write home about either.

#5 Paris, France

Since we’re on the subject of large metropolitan areas with massive populations, we can’t neglect to mention Paris. Paris has a reputation of being the New York of Europe in terms of pollution, cleanness, and public services, and this isn’t a compliment.

IQAir (Air Quality Indicator) ranks Paris as the second most polluted city in France, and the competition is stiff. France never managed to catch up to its German and Nordic neighbours in terms of air quality, and it is noticeable.

Unlike Italy, Poland, and Bulgaria, however, the saving grace is France relies on Nuclear power for a significant amount of its electricity production, and this has significantly curbed air pollution in the country as a whole.

In Summary

Although Europe generally has a good reputation around the world for its good air quality, and while that’s somewhat true on the macro level, there are many major European cities that suffer from appalling levels of air pollution. 

If you have offices located in any one of these cities, you’ve likely experienced the problem yourself. Sadly, some businesses even hesitate to ventilate their offices for the risk of all the pollutants, toxins, and allergens getting in. Investing in a medical-grade air purifier to ensure high-quality, fresh air indoors might be worth a second look. An air purifier will not only help you deal with air pollution in major European cities, but it will also disinfect the air and keep your employees healthy.

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