France is a country located in western Europe, noted historically for its contributions to the arts, science as well as philosophical thought. Today however, despite its leading role in monitoring climate change and pollution levels, it comes in as a more polluted country than many of its west European counterparts, ranking worse than other neighboring countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain, Switzerland and Germany. In 2019, it came in ranked 71st place globally in terms of the most polluted countries in the world, out of the 98 countries listed. The reading of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter of 2.5 or less micrometers in diameter) that gave it this 71st place was 12.34 µg/m³. This reading places its 2019 average into the bracket of being ‘moderately’ polluted, which to attain requires a PM2.5 figure of anywhere between 12.1 to 35.4 µg/m³ to be classed as such.
Whilst taking 71st place out of all 98 countries listed is a fairly respectable position in the bigger picture, when observing the data taken regarding air quality over both 2019 and 2018, France has some cities that have some comparatively poorer air quality ratings during certain months. This can be observed in 2019 with cities such as Douai, located in northern France, coming in with a PM2.5 reading of 38.4 µg/m³ in February, putting it into the ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ bracket. This requires a figure of 35.5 to 55.4 µg/m³, and represents a rating that can be of concern for numerous groups. These would include vulnerable demographics such as the young and elderly, as well as those with compromised immune systems, alongside environmental groups who strive to keep the levels of pollution in France to a lower number, with failure to do so exposing France to impending fines by the European Commission.
Other city readings over 2019 that came in the unhealthy for sensitive groups included Malo-Les-Bains, with a PM2.5 reading in the month of February coming in at 45.3 µg/m³, as well as Boulogne-Sur-Mer coming in at the exact same PM2.5 reading of 45.3 µg/m³, once again in the month of February. There are a number of other cities such as Valenciennes, Calais and Creil all coming in with the unhealthy for sensitive groups rating, all during the month of February. Another pattern that emerges is that all of these cities are located in the northern region of France, displaying that the majority of Frances pollution may find its origin in the north.
Overall, the air quality in France lends itself to being of a good average quality, with many cities coming in at the World Health Organizations (WHO) target PM2.5 reading of 0 to 10 µg/m³, representing some very respectable numbers with a good quality of air. However, there are many cities, particularly in the northern region of France that display higher levels of pollution year-round, with large readings of pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) permeating the atmosphere. Car and truck emissions play a large part in this, as well as the residential sector, with the heating of many homes and businesses being increasingly salient in recent years.
There are a fairly large number of pollutants to be found in Frances air, with several main reasons behind their emission. There exist two different classifications of chemicals, namely ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ groupings of air pollutants. Amongst the primary pollutants you would find gases such as the various carbon and sulfur oxides, including carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO) as well as sulfur dioxide (SO2), although in these forms they would already be classed as a ‘secondary’ pollutant due to them having already chemically bonded. Besides the carbon and sulfur oxides, the other primary pollutants you would find include volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) caused by the incomplete or improper combustion of fossil fuels and other organic matter. Various metals find their way into the list, often from construction sites or industrial factory production, including lead and mercury to name a few. Lastly there are the fine particulate matters PM10 and PM2.5, formed by the chemical reactions of some of the previously mentioned primary pollutants, as well as secondary pollutants playing a role in the creation of PM2.5 and PM10.
Onto the secondary pollutants, you would find (amongst some of the previously mentioned chemical compounds) ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and a variety of other secondary particles. Of note is that NO2 can be found in both the primary and secondary pollutant classification. Whilst this may seem confusing, the main point to remember and understand about the classifications, is simply that primary pollutants are ones that are released directly into the atmosphere (through a variety of means such as heating, vehicular emissions, agriculture and other forms of industry). Secondary pollutants are not directly emitted into the atmosphere, but come into existence through the chemical reactions of the primary pollutants.
Moving onto the causes of these pollutants, vehicles such as cars and trucks would continue to emit high volumes of nitrogen dioxide, so much so that air pollution caused by cars can be directly measured by how high a concentration on NO2 is found in the atmosphere, with high numbers often indicating a majority of pollution and reduced air quality in any given area finding its root cause in vehicular emissions. Other sources of air pollution include the aforementioned heating of homes and businesses, which subsequently require the combustion of fossil fuels and other potentially ‘unclean’ fuels to achieve the desired results. Along with industries such as factories and production plants contributing to the overall levels of pollution, as well as the agricultural sector having its own impact, it would appear that the roads and residential heating are responsible for a majority of the production of pollution that France puts out.
Whilst there are many cities and regions in France that have a very high quality of air to breathe, with numerous locations reporting PM2.5 readings sitting nicely within the WHO’s target readings of 0 to 10 µg/m³, there are also a multitude of cities, particularly in the northern region that suffer from poorer air quality. There are months that jump up in terms of their PM10 and PM2.5 readings, meaning that the levels of smoke, haze and other unwanted pollutants would be readily available in the air for its citizens to respire. Over longer periods of time, the repeated inhalation of pollution and fine particulate matter can cause a number of health issues, both short term and chronic (long term).
For particulate matter such as PM10, continued breathing of it can cause a host of issues such as injury to the lungs and reduced lung function over time, as well as a susceptibility to chest infections and the triggering of preexisting conditions such as asthma. It is possible for this larger particulate matter to cause irritation to areas of the body such as the skin, eyes, nose and throat, leading to further conditions arising that may require more attention after periods of time, such as skin rashes and allergies, as well as the development of asthma in people who may not have previously suffered from it.
In regards to the breathing of the much smaller PM2.5, the health risks go up in correlation with the decrease in size of the particulate matter. During the months that experience higher levels of pollution, exposing oneself to consistently breathing this air without taking any preventative measures can lead to a host of problems such as increased risks of lung cancer, the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) that can include within it a number of respiratory ailments such as bronchitis (both chronic and short term) as well as emphysema. Due to the extremely small size of PM2.5, it has the ability to be absorbed deep into the lung tissue, where it can accumulate and not only cause a host of issues as mentioned above, but make its way into the bloodstream via the circulatory system, a feat possible due to its minuscule size. With entry to the circulatory system, it can make its way to the heart and cause a variety of heart diseases and arrythmias (irregular heart beat) as well as increasing the risk of a cardiac events such as a heart attack occurring.
Other pollutants such as black carbon (BC), also formed from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and organic wastes, can cause its own host of problems such as premature death rates, damage to the blood vessels, increased rates of cancer and even birth defects to those who are overexposed. Black carbon is one of the primary components of soot and as such it can be given off in high quantities by vehicular emissions running off diesel fuels, as well as burning of organic matter in rural areas, although this second mention is of less pertinence in countries such as France.
As can be seen by the previously mentioned list of health effects of breathing polluted air, it stands to reason that reducing exposure on an individual level as well as far reaching initiatives on an international level are being taken far more seriously in France, as well as the whole of Europe, with climate councils holding offending countries responsible for controlling their pollution levels. Whilst breathing polluted air can have disastrous consequences, in relation to the country of France, due to the large number of cities with extremely good air quality, these health risks would be severely diminished, only being of concern in the most polluted cities, and in particular during certain times of the year. What exact times of the year these high pollution levels occur in will be discussed in further detail in following.
Observing the data provided on the IQAir website with its readings of PM2.5 recorded in France over the year of 2019, it can be seen that the month of February consistently stands out as the worst polluted month of the entire year. Seven out of all registered cities in France came in at a rating of ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ during the month of February 2019, with not another single month displaying this rating. Even those that did not break into the unhealthy for sensitive groups bracket can be observed having elevated levels of PM2.5 from the month prior, with January often coming in significantly lower. To give some examples, Saint-Denis, the most polluted city in France in 2019, had a PM2.5 reading of 19.3 µg/m³ in January, and then a reading of 26.3 µg/m³ in February. This was the highest level of PM2.5 recorded in the city throughout the year, with levels of air quality actually improving considerably in the months following that. Another example would be the city of Marseille, which came in within the WHO’s target reading of 9.9 µg/m³ in January, only to be followed in February by a reading of 19.8 µg/m³, showing that it had doubled in number between those two months. After this, Marseille returned back to the WHO’s target range for many more months into the year.
Using these as examples to go by, and if the data from 2019 is observed, it shows that February is the month when pollution levels are at a countrywide high, and as such preventative measures should be taken, such as staying up to date in February with air quality maps as available on the IQAir website, showing hourly and daily updates that can help determine whether or not the air is safe to breathe, with appropriate action being taken such as the wearing of particle filtering masks and avoiding outdoor activities. This information is also available on the AirVisual app, providing the same data and air quality maps but with the convenience and mobility of being on a phone.
There are numerous initiatives being taken on an international level to reduce the level of pollution occurring in France. Large amounts of money have been poured into plans to address pollution related issues, with investment into greener solutions such as country wide renovation of buildings and houses to be outfitted with more energy efficient systems, a move towards ‘decarbonizing’ the fuel industry as well as others related to it, the total removal of diesel based fuels by 2024 and a push for the increased use of green technologies such as the use of hydrogen and biofuels, as well as increased efforts in recycling. These initiatives, along with the introduction of low emission zones and the combatting of food wastage (which in turn will lead to a decrease in food related industrial production) will go a long way to reduce the levels of pollution in France, with improvements already being made visible from the level of PM2.5 present in the air over 2017 and 2018 being higher than the reading taken over 2019.