The Sources of Air Pollution and Finding the Solutions

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Air pollution is a substantial and yet unresolved problem in most German cities. It is the cause of alarming numbers of premature deaths, as well as serious impacts on the environment and human health. A considerable reduction in air pollution was achieved during the last decades in Germany. However, many cities and regions including Heilbronn, still experience exceedances of the regulated limits for air pollutants. Substantial further reduction measures will, therefore, be needed if the limit value set in the EU’s Air Quality Directive is to be reached. This paper outlines the harmful effects of particulate pollution and gives an overview of technical, economic and social aspects, which can be considered as a basis of discussion for designing Heilbronn’s environmental investment program.


Germany’s high population density, industrialization level, location in central Europe and dependence on fossil fuels for its energy supply have contributed to making environmental protection a public concern and a policy priority. Air pollution is not a new phenomenon; it is largely controllable and often avoidable, but considerably neglected. A significant proportion of Germany’s urban population still lives in cities where EU air quality limits, protecting human health, are regularly exceeded. Air pollution continues to have significant impacts on the health of Germans, particularly in urban areas. It has also considerable economic impacts, cutting lives short, increasing medical costs and reducing productivity through working days lost across the economy.

The average person living in Europe loses 2 years of their life to the health effect of breathing polluted air, according to a report published in the European Heart Journal. The report also estimates about 800,000 people die prematurely in Europe per year due to air pollution, or roughly 17% of the 5 million deaths in Europe annually. In EU exposure to fine particles claims 180,000 lives a year, including 35,000 in Germany.

Around 90% of city dwellers in Germany are exposed to pollutants like Particulate Matter(PM), Nitrogen Dioxide and Ground Level Ozone at concentrations higher than the air quality levels deemed harmful to health. PM pollution is currently one of the main concern in Germany for its adverse effects on human health, environment, and climate. In spite of considerable improvements achieved in the last decades in many industrialized countries like Germany, PM pollution is still responsible for thousands of premature deaths(62,300 premature deaths attributed to PM2.5 exposure in Germany) and of the increase of many pathologies each year in EU. The fine PM(PM2.5) has been estimated to reduce life expectancy in the EU by more than 8 months. Although there has been done a lot to improve air quality in Germany, we still have a long way to go to meet the WHO recommendation(10xx in annual mean for PM2.5 and 40xx in annual mean for PM10) for Particulate Matter. European Commission has highlighted that 130 cities in Europe, basically most urban areas do not respect air pollution limits. Significant action has to be taken at the city level to determine the most effective and systematic ways to abate air pollution problems.


Heilbronn is a city in northern Baden- Württemberg, Germany, with approximately 125,000 residents, making it the 6th largest city in the state. It lies along the Neckar river and is the economic center of the Heilbronn-Franken region that includes most of northeastern Baden-Württemberg. Many industrial companies have set up operations in and around the Heilbronn region due to its well-developed infrastructure with the nearby autobahn, harbor and extensive industrial and dock-railway system. In addition to several logistics companies, it is home to suppliers to the automobile industry,tool and mechanical engineering firms, trading companies and even salt mining operations. Due to the above criteria, it is undoubtedly vulnerable to the posed Particulate pollution threat. Environmental campaign group ClientEarth is involved in fresh legal action against 11 German cities including Heilbronn, over failure to meet air pollution limits. Thus the city of Heilbronn needs to implement measures to bring air pollution within legal limits in the soonest possible timeframe.

Of all the air pollutants, Particulate Matter(PM) is more threatening. PM is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. These particles come in many sizes(smallest ones being the most dangerous) and shapes and can be made up of 100s of different chemicals. Particulate pollution includes PM10(inhalable particles with diameters that are generally 10 micrometers and smaller) and PM2.5(fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller, and often dubbed a silent killer). WHO estimates around 7 million deaths worldwide every year to be linked to exposure to fine particles in polluted air.

Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems including premature deaths, heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function and so on. PM is the main cause of reduced visibility(haze) in various parts of the country. Depending on their chemical composition, they cause environmental damages like making lakes and streams acidic, depleting the nutrients in the soil, affecting the diversity of ecosystems, contributing to acid rain effects and so on. PM can stain and damage culturally important objects such as statues and monuments. Cooperation across sectors and at different levels (city, regional and national) is crucial to effectively address particulate pollution. Policies and investments supporting cleaner and greener initiatives can reduce key sources of particulate pollution. These interventions would not only improve health but also reduce climate pollutants and serve as a catalyst for local economic development and the promotion of healthy urban lifestyles.


Heilbronn, home to over 125,000 people, should boldly push forward with a range of measures to improve air quality for the city’s inhabitants and for global wellbeing.

Economic Aspects:

There are numerous effects of particulate pollution on the ecosystem which in turn has various economic implications. The effects of PM on health, crop, and forest yields, ecosystems, the climate, and the built environment also entail considerable market and non-market costs. The market costs of PM pollution include reduced labor productivity, additional health expenditure, and crop and forest yield losses. Non-market costs are those associated with increased mortality and morbidity, degradation of air and water quality, as well as climate change.

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The economic burden of particulate pollution in terms of both damage to health and loss of productivity is immense for the world and for individual countries. The European Commission estimates the total health cost linked to air pollution to be between 330 and 940 billion EUR/Year. The societal welfare loss associated with health damages in Germany amounted to approximately 97 billion EUR in 2015, about 3% of Germany’s gross national income. To combat the economic threat, there is a need to develop robust air quality management plans, driven by quality data, which will provide the basis for implementing projects that will reduce high levels of PM in a cost-effective manner. Simultaneously short term climate pollutants and levels of greenhouse gases need to be reduced. Cooperation across various sectors is crucial to tackling the particulate pollution and its effect on the economy. Some of the initiatives include increasing the low emission fuels and renewable combustion free power sources, removing any incentives for the purchase of diesel cars, investing in more ambitious mitigation programs, implementing stricter vehicle emissions and efficiency standards, implementing air quality standards, automobile emission standards, fuel quality standards, emission taxes, among others. Reducing the average concentration of fine particulate pollution by 1xx/m3, or about 10%, would cause economic activity to increase by 1.3%, or about Euros 130 Billion- roughly the size of a city such as Heilbronn.

Social Aspects:

Poor air quality kills people. Particulate pollution has been linked to higher rates of lung cancer(29% of all deaths), heart disease(25%), stroke(24%) and other respiratory diseases such as asthma. While those effects emerge from long term exposure, air pollution can also cause short term problems such as sneezing and coughing, eye irritation and so on. PM2.5 pose higher health risks because they can be breathed deeply into the lungs and may cross into the bloodstream.

Research has shown that air pollution is damaging to health, cognitive performance, labor productivity, and educational outcomes. However, it also has a broader impact on people’s social lives and behavior. On polluted days, people have shown to be more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behavior that they may later regret, possibly as a result of short term depression and anxiety. It was found that there exists a significantly negative correlation between pollution and happiness levels. Women were more sensitive to higher pollution levels than men, as were those on higher incomes.

Along with harming human health, air pollution can cause a variety of environmental effects. Acid rain, which is the precipitation containing a harmful amount of acidic particles damages trees and causes soils and water bodies to acidify and also speeds the decay of buildings, statues, and sculptures that are part of national heritage. Acid rain causes $6 Billion a year in damage to crops, forests, lakes, and buildings. Eutrophication, haze and ozone depletion are other prominent consequences of air pollution. Particulate pollution can lead to reductions in agricultural crop and commercial forest yields, reduced growth, and survivability of tree seedlings, and increased plant susceptibility to disease, pests, and other environmental stresses. Toxic particles in the air can impact wildlife and animals can experience health problems if exposed to sufficient concentrations of air toxics over time contributing to birth defects, reproductive failure, and diseases. Persistent toxic pollutants are of particular concern in aquatic ecosystems. They accumulate in sediments and biomagnify in tissues of animals at the top of the food chain to concentrations many times higher than in the water or air. Heilbronn, which lies along the Neckar river, adjacent to the Swabian forest and home to captivating historic monuments should pay considerable attention to prevent the harmful effects of particulate pollution on its environment.

Specific actions to ensure adequate and timely reductions in air pollutant emissions and an improvement in air quality should be identified. Some of which would be to improve the coordination within cities between air, health, energy and urban planning authorities, taking into account the contributions that could come from citizens’ involvement in urban policy development. Promoting awareness raising, training, and information campaigns in order to motivate them to change their behavior regarding pollution and its control(e.g., “Richtig Heizen” campaign aims to provide technical information and support to the consumers regarding energy efficiency and emission reductions). Strategies for phasing out high polluting solid fuel combustion, for addressing fuel poverty and energy efficiency, eco-design provisions and energy labeling and other administrative measures are the need of the hour.

Technical Measures:

The modeling used by cities for air quality management face certain technical difficulties in terms of establishing high-quality input data, and high levels of uncertainty. Cities would benefit from using more advanced local traffic models to support a better interpretation of potential traffic-related measures. In urban areas, city participants recognize that increasing the number of sampling points for PM can be beneficial for municipalities planning to draw up measures aiming to cut local air pollution, such as low emission zones. Another emerging area on the air quality measurement is the promotion of sensors, by emphasizing the need to overcome the technical problems relating to the power source, data transmission, data storage, and data handling and assessment.

Road transport is still the most important local source of PM pollution in cities. Cities must plan short and long term measures mostly to reduce road transport emissions, including not only exhaust emissions from vehicles but also road dust and dust due to tyre and brake ware. Low emission zones must be set up and hardware and software retrofitting and banning of some or all diesel vehicles must be implemented. Cities should introduce technological improvements such as retrofitting and promoting e-mobility especially for municipal heavy-duty vehicles and Euro-V refuse trucks and introduce electric busses and e-bikes. Residential heating remains a concern, and measures should be taken mainly targetting polluting stoves and boilers(through stricter emission standards) and their substitution by clean alternatives(more natural gas and district heating). Continued efforts must be made to increase public awareness of air pollution issues, to avoid misinformation and to improve the information systems(social media, smartphone apps,etc.) alerting the public to pollution episodes in real time.


The main challenge for Heilbronn city will be, how best to communicate information on air quality to the public and ensure active engagement and interest from its citizens. There remains a clear need for streamlining and providing guidance on processes and practices in air quality action planning at the local scale. Urban air quality managers do miss having a single dedicated and endorsed platform for communication among cities and central governance on urban air quality. While there are many EU initiatives and research initiatives designed to support German cities with information on air quality issues and to support local air quality implementation, often many local air quality managers are not aware of their existence. There is a need for a more coherent approach across Germany to allow a better and regular exchange of knowledge and experiences, summarizing effective management approaches and sharing of best practices. Changing the way in which we view and structure our cities will be critical to drive substantial reductions in the concentration of pollutants. It will only be through a multi-pronged approach that EU limits for PM will be met.

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