Study: Air quality in Estonia improved 'significantly' over past decade

Forest in Estonia.
Forest in Estonia. Source: Laura Raudnagel

Air quality in Estonia has significantly improved over the last decade, the Ministry of the Environment says, adding that while this is a welcome development, fine particle and nitrogen dioxide pollution continues to be a health issue.

The study, published Wednesday and conducted jointly by University of Tartu and the Estonian Environmental Research Center (EKUK) on behalf of the ministry, found that the primary sources of air pollution such as it is continue to be car traffic and local heating, while fine particle and nitrogen dioxide pollution led to more than a thousand early deaths in Estonia in 2020 alone

Completion of the study also coincided with a recent European Commission proposal to amend air quality directives.

Hans Orru, professor of environmental health at the University of Tartu, who headed up the study, says the 1,179 early deaths posted in 2020 equate to 14,179 lost years of life, and a reduction in life expectancy of nearly 10 months.

The map below shows the regional breakdown of the reduction in average life expectancy as a result of pollution (darker colors are the hardest-hit areas, with the maximum reduction being just over one year).

Reduction in life expectancy as a result of air pollution in Estonia, results from 2020 (ranges from 0.41 years to 1.1 years). Source: Ministry of the Environment

Orru said: "All this also has a very substantial socio-economic external cost, i.e. the monetary equivalent of this negative impact on health comes to €666 million per year."

Nonetheless, air quality has significantly improved over the last decade, reducing health impacts by nearly 30 per cent.

"The improvement in air quality stems from the implementation of less polluting vehicles, though the number of cars on the roads is still constantly rising. While electric cars do not discharge exhaust gases, they still produce road dust," Orru went on.

"A lot of road dust is created in the cities as a result of the use of studded tires, which release fine particles into the air as they both wear down roads and are themselves worn down."

While winter tires on Estonia's roads are mandatory from today, Thursday, they need not be of the studded variety. Most of the wear and tear and ensuing dust arrives with the spring thaw.

District heating, generated in plants as hot water with the fuel used often being natural gas and then which is then piped to many apartment blocks also brought about a negative impact, the study found.

The use of dry wood – which in any case is rising due to soaring natural gas costs - better heating techniques and heating appliances, and more widespread connections to district heating in more densely populated areas will help to mitigate this pollution source, the ministry says.

The greatest damage caused by traffic was in Tallinn, especially in the city center where life expectancy is decreased due to traffic pollution by more than a year.

Greenery is one of the best ways of offsetting this, Orru added – both the presence of nearby green areas in general, and the spending of time in such zones or outside the city altogether.

Mikk Toim, adviser to the Ambient Air and Radiation Department at the Ministry of the Environment, said the state is working hard to reduce air pollution, to improve air monitoring and to raise public awareness of the effects of air pollution.

"The most important aspect to the proposal is reducing the limit values of pollutants to levels close to the recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO). This would also reduce the health impacts of air pollution," Toim added.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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