Despite improved air quality, 40,000 deaths per year are still attributable to exposure to fine particles, according to Public Health France which publishes new figures this April 14. The health agency calls not to be satisfied with a slight improvement in the toll of victims of this pollution.

On the contrary, it is necessary to “continue or even strengthen the efforts aimed at reducing this burden”, argues Sébastien Denys, an official of the agency, who underlines the significant impact on health of a drop in pollution, even in the short term. .

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Improvement during containment

Proof of this is the impact of the first containment in 2020, during which pollution had largely decreased, especially in urban areas. This improvement was particularly noticeable for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), mainly linked to road traffic, stopped during this period, but less for PM2.5 also from other sources (agricultural spreading, heating, etc.).

This nevertheless made it possible to avoid 2,300 deaths linked to exposure to fine particles, which are more harmful, and 1,200 deaths linked to nitrogen dioxide. The figures cannot be added together, as an undetermined part of the deaths is linked to the joint action of the two pollutants.

Better air quality since 2016

And overall, the situation has improved in France in recent years. In 2016, Santé Publique France, based on the period 2007-2008, estimated at 48,000 the number of premature deaths per year linked to concentrations of fine particles PM2.5, those microscopic airborne materials that enter the branches of the airways and into the blood.

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New estimate suggests “downward trend”: nearly 40,000 deaths per year attributable to PM2.5 between 2016 and 2019, i.e. 7% of total mortality over this period, compared to 9% in 2007-2008.

This improvement is explained by different exposure models, but also by the improvement in air quality. Thus, according to the 2019 report, the emissions of fine particles PM2.5 decreased by 61% between 2000 and 2019 and those of nitrogen oxides by 56%, even if the state has been condemned in court for not having sufficiently reduced certain pollutants in some cities.

Less eight months of life expectancy

The impact of air pollution is not just counted in the number of deaths. Exposure to these particles, which can cause cancer, asthma, allergies or cardiovascular disease, also reduces the life expectancy of an adult from the age of 30 by eight months.

“We can be satisfied with the slight decrease. But from a public health point of view, what worries us is an estimate of 40,000 preventable deaths. And I insist on this preventable term: actions are possible to reduce this impact, ”emphasizes Sébastien Denys.

The annual number of deaths attributed to nitrogen dioxide, calculated for the first time, is 7,000. But we cannot add these deaths in full to those linked to PM2.5, insists the public health agency.

“Lessons” to be learned

“Obviously, we do not recommend the implementation of conditions as drastic” as the first confinement, notes Sébatien Denys.

But this allows certain “lessons” to be drawn in terms of public actions, such as reducing road traffic in urban areas or industrial emissions, insists Public Health France. As well as in terms of behavioral changes, such as telecommuting.

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Other avenues must also be pursued, in particular “improving wood-burning practices”, on which the government is preparing to adopt an “action plan”, and the development of good agricultural practices, notes l ‘agency. Sectors that had continued to emit even during confinement.

One in five deaths worldwide

The new estimates from Santé Publique France fall far short of other international research. For example, a study published in February in Environmental Research estimated that fine particle pollution caused by the combustion of fossil fuels was responsible for one in five deaths worldwide, or more than 8 million deaths in 2018, including nearly 100,000 in France.

Discrepancies linked to methodological differences and more precise data on France, explains Santé Publique France. And in all cases, it is about “several thousand deaths”, which proves a “burden linked to atmospheric pollution” very important “, answers Sébastien Denys.