What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word pollution? Some see it as foggy skies, piles of garbage lying on the streetside, litter-filled rivers, or even thick clouds of smoke. Now, can you imagine the most polluted cities in Europe looking like this? Not many can.
The truth is every place around the world battles the scourge of air pollution levels. Industrialisation, deforestation, and growing populations have sped up the rising rate of pollution, and everyone across the globe is feeling the effects of things like the lack of clean air.
Europe is home to some of the most beautiful cities in the world, but like most places around the world, the continent has a big pollution problem. The most common and arguably more dangerous form of pollution in Europe is air contamination.
The First Industrial Revolution catapulted Europe into being the most developed continent in the world, but it also made it one of the world’s most polluted.
How the Most Polluted Cities in Europe Are Determined
Table of Contents
- How the Most Polluted Cities in Europe Are Determined
- 17 Most Polluted Cities in Europe
- 1. Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom
- 2. Naples, Italy
- 3. Paris, France
- 4. Antwerp, Belgium
- 5. Dortmund, Germany
- 6. Zürich, Switzerland
- 7. Stuttgart, Germany
- 8. Munich, Germany
- 9. Frankfurt am Main, Germany
- 10. Hamburg, Germany
- 11. Rotterdam (The Hague Metro), Netherlands
- 12. Brussels, Belgium
- 13. Oslo, Norway
- 14. Athens, Greece
- 15. Sofia, Bulgaria
- 16. London, United Kingdom
- 17. Lyon, France
- FAQs About the Europe’s Most Polluted Cities
- What European City Is Famous for Its Smog?
- What Country in Europe Has the Most Polluted Air?
- Which European City Has the Cleanest Air?
- Most Polluted Cities in Europe | Wrapped Up
A recent study by Airly revealed that pollution levels have drastically increased throughout the member states of Europe. The study reported on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10) levels across numerous major cities in Europe, and the findings were grim, to say the least.
This list dives into the details of the most polluted cities in Europe ranked by their NO2 levels. In September 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its new and stricter pollution standards in an effort to curb the growing air contamination.
The latest WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines (or AQGs) recommend new air quality levels and the reduction of key pollutants. Air quality standards for PM10 changed from 50 µg/m3 to 45 µg/m3, while NO2 levels stayed the same at 25 µg/m3.
17 Most Polluted Cities in Europe
Before we dive in, it’s worth noting that these most polluted cities in Europe are ranked according to their NO2 levels and as a percentage of the new WHO guidelines.
NO2 is a chemical compound released into the air in various ways. The compound causes irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat. That said, long-term exposure can lead to serious human health issues like asthma, and respiratory diseases as well as causing premature deaths.
You may come across a few of your European bucket list destinations on this list – don’t be alarmed! Many of the best cities to visit on the continent have some of the worst pollution levels on the planet, and tourists could be a major contributing factor. Keep reading to find out how.
1. Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom
Photo by Karl Moran on Unsplash
NO2 levels: 44,6 µg/m3 (179% over WHO safe standard)
Famous for its dramatic bridges, vibrant food scenery, brown ale beer, and wild, never-ending nightlife, Newcastle is one of the best places to live in the United Kingdom. The city is also home to several of the best landmarks in the UK and has a rich industrial heritage, becoming a major industrial and financial hub in the region by 1800.
Newcastle’s industry prowess in glassmaking, ironworking, and shipbuilding made the port city one of the most sought-after places to live and work. Unfortunately, this explosion of industries has significantly contributed to the high NO2 levels in Newcastle.
Other common air pollutant factors include vehicle emissions and weather conditions such as temperature inversions and Sahara desert dust storms that travel across Europe. But these are not the only factors that influence the rise of pollution in Newcastle.
Social and economic issues like high unemployment rates result in people being unable to afford energy-efficient home heating systems. Newcastle is a low-cost-of-living city, so local industries may be less likely to put pollution control measures in place if there are no penalties or costs for not doing so.
These, as well as reliance on older industrial facilities, are some of the biggest contributors to the pollution.
2. Naples, Italy
Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash
NO2 levels: 42,4 µg/m3 (170% over WHO safe standard)
Ah – Napoli, the birthplace of pizza. Tucked along the western coast of southern Italy, Naples is a treasure trove of scenic natural beauty, colourful buildings, and historic architecture, making the city a tourist magnet. But is Naples’ air quality as good as its classic Margherita pizza?
Pollution is a long-standing problem in Naples. The city faces large amounts of emissions caused by traffic, shipping and port-related activities, metal processing, and topographical factors like being surrounded by hills and mountains. For example, when polluted air gets blown into the valley, it gets trapped by the hills and lingers in the air above the city.
Naples also experiences socio-economic ills like high levels of unemployment, low cost of living, and an informal economy largely driven by undocumented migrants who can’t find formal work. This also leads to unmaintained living conditions, overcrowding and other public health issues as well as limited access to green technologies that could counteract pollution in this western Europe city.
3. Paris, France
Photo by Viviana Ceballos on Pexels
NO2 levels: 41,2 µg/m3 (165% over WHO safe standard)
There are many fascinating facts about Paris that you might not know. Like that, the city is home to more dogs than children, has over 6,000 streets, and has about 450,000 trees. But another fact you might not be aware of is that Paris has some of the highest NO2 levels in all of Europe.
When you think of Paris, places like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, and the Arc de Triomphe are probably the first to come to mind, and it’s not surprising. There are many exciting things to do in Paris, but have you ever considered the poor air quality you’re breathing in? Probably not.
Paris faces high air pollution. It’s mainly caused by traffic emissions from fossil fuels, industry production, and weather conditions such as air stagnation, which means the air is not moving. This concentration of undispensed air leads to unhealthy levels, causing breathing issues due to the dangerous levels of air pollution.
Vehicle manufacturing, as well as chemical and heavy machinery production, are the leading causes of pollution in Paris. Other factors contributing to contamination include high living costs, which show most people staying in crowded spaces.
This excessive urban density often causes a lack of caring for the environment and limited access to government services, leading to higher unemployment and poverty levels.
4. Antwerp, Belgium
Photo by Zoë Gayah Jonker on Unsplash
NO2 levels: 35,9 µg/m3 (144% over WHO safe standard)
Dotted with mesmerising Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance architecture, castles, and historic statues, Antwerp is one of the best places to visit for history buffs worldwide. The port city is famously known as the “diamond capital of the world” for its crucial role in the diamond trade.
Antwerp is located in one of the safest countries in the world, so you won’t have to worry about pickpockets and scammers while exploring the city’s highlights through a fun bike tour. Rather, what you should worry about is the unhealthy levels of NO2 in Antwerp’s air.
The city’s main pollutants are largely released as emissions from petrochemical refining and industries like logistics, shipping, and steel manufacturing. Another factor that contributes to the high pollution levels in Antwerp is the weather conditions, like changing wind patterns.
Antwerp’s world-renowned status as a major player in the polishing and trading of diamonds makes the city attractive to tourists and migrants seeking greener pastures. The city’s high cost of living may see some people living in unhygienic places, worsening land and air pollution.
5. Dortmund, Germany
Photo by Kseniia Rastvorova on Unsplash
NO2 levels: 35,6 µg/m3 (142% over WHO safe standard)
Known for its eclectic love of football, beer-making, museums, and a pleasant mix of modern and historic buildings, Dortmund is one of the most magical places to visit in Germany.
Being home to the German Football Museum and Borussia Dortmund, one of the most successful clubs in Europe, the city attracts many football supporters. So you cannot leave the city without visiting BVB Signal Iduna Park — the football team’s vibrant home stadium.
Pollution levels in Dortmund have continued to rise in recent years. The city’s legacy in coal mining has significantly contributed to pollution levels, and newer industries like steel production and chemical manufacturing have worsened the situation.
Dortmund faces large vehicle emissions, industrial activities, and domestic heating, especially in the colder winter months. The city also has a high unemployment rate, leaving plenty of people to live in low-cost housing areas, which are typically close to industrial sites. These socioeconomic issues continue to grow, and pollution levels along with them.
You might want to read my article on the most polluted rivers in the world.
6. Zürich, Switzerland
Photo by Meizhi Lang on Unsplash
NO2 levels: 34,9 µg/m3 (140% over WHO safe standard)
The Swiss capital is world-recognised for its elite financial institutions, high-end shopping, and gorgeous scenery around Lake Zurich. Its historic old town is dotted with picturesque lanes of colourful homes, streetside cafes, and plenty of bridges and fountains.
Zürich is a city of paradoxes; look at its nickname for example, “Little Big City”, referring to its global financial centres but without the size of other major cities across the word. The mystery can also be seen in the city’s pollution levels.
When measuring pollution by PM2.5 levels, Zürich ranks outstandingly as the city with the cleanest air in the world. But once looked at according to levels of NO2, the story turns on its head. Zürich’s pollution is mainly caused by traffic, harmful gases from cooking and heating, and waste material from industries like pharmaceuticals and machinery manufacturing.
The city’s opulence and extravagant lifestyle have earned it the status of being one of the safest cities in the world but also one of the most expensive. This has led to a high cost of living, causing population density within urban areas and increased demand for transportation without a strong public transport system.
You might enjoy reading my article on the most visited cities in Europe.
7. Stuttgart, Germany
Image by Wolfgang Vogt on Pixabay
NO2 levels: 34,1 µg/m3 (137% over WHO safe standard)
With a nickname like the “cradle of the automobile”, it’s not surprising that Stuttgart ranks high on the list of most polluted cities in Europe. It is home to the world’s best auto manufacturers and museums like the Mercedes-Benz Museum and Porsche Museum.
Stuttgart’s top-notch auto industry has largely contributed to the levels of NO2 in the air through traffic emissions and industrial activities. Topographic factors also influence pollution, with the city being surrounded by hills and valleys.
Other notable factors include Stuttgart’s high cost of living, which translates to dense urban areas. The auto industry job market also attracts many migrants, so heavy traffic congestion is a permanent plight in the city.
8. Munich, Germany
Photo by Ian Kelsall on Unsplash
NO2 levels: 33,5 µg/m3 (134% over WHO safe standard)
Munich is known for many things – historic Gothic architecture, delicious Bavarian cuisine, countless museums, and the annual Oktoberfest. The city easily makes the list of the most beautiful cities in Germany for its stunning parks, towering church spires, and castles.
Like Stuttgart, Munich has a massive automotive manufacturing industry and a growing trade in information and aerospace technology. This leads to higher traffic emissions in the city centre. Residential heating in winter also contributes to the levels of air pollution in Munich.
The city has many pull factors, like a huge job market in the technology and manufacturing sectors, attracting many migrants. This has led to a high cost of living and densely populated urban areas. The growing population rate further increases residential and traffic emissions.
9. Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Photo by Paul Fiedler on Unsplash
NO2 levels: 32,6 µg/m3 (130% over WHO safe standard)
Often, when you hear the word “Frankfurt”, the first thing that comes to mind is their high-quality sausages. But there is more to Frankfurt than what meets the eye. The city is home to many top landmarks in Germany and is an excellent place to visit for a delightful blend of modern and historic attractions.
The city is Germany’s financial centre, being home to the Deutsche Bundesbank, the European Central Bank, and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, which is the 12th largest in the world by market capitalisation. This causes a large influx of migrants and, with that, rising pollution levels.
Frankfurt’s pollution is largely caused by industrial activities that are financed through bank loans from the financial services sector. The city’s traffic emissions and varying weather conditions also contribute to the rising contamination of air.
Other pollutants in the air are primarily caused by residents’ daily commutes as well as international transportation hubs like bus and train stations.
10. Hamburg, Germany
NO2 levels: 32 µg/m3 (128% over WHO safe standard)
If you could spend one day in Hamburg, what do you think your day would look like? Perhaps you’ll pay a visit to Hafencity and marvel at the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, or maybe you’ll spend the day exploring the harbour and the Speicherstadt with a guided day cruise.
Sounds like a perfect day, right? But have you considered the city’s air quality? Hamburg is a major port city in Germany, so shipping activities form part of the daily lifestyle as well as lots of cruise ships. The city also has a growing aerospace and logistics industry, which worsens air pollution.
Hamburg has secondary factors that also contribute to pollution levels. These include the booming urban developments, high cost of living, and extensive reliance on the port and shipping industries. This can contribute to decreases in life expectancy from health issues such as lung cancer and heart diseases.
11. Rotterdam (The Hague Metro), Netherlands
Photo by Alireza Parpaei on Unsplash
NO2 levels: 31,8 µg/m3 (127% over WHO safe standard)
Rotterdam is like no other place in the Netherlands. For example, it is the only city in the country that has a skyscraper-filled skyline. Architectures like the iconic Cube Houses, the Market Hall, and the Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen museum epitomize Rotterdam’s new-age feel.
This is a big achievement, considering that most of the city had to be rebuilt after World War II. Rotterdam, like many port cities in Europe, struggles with pollution caused by shipping activities. The city’s wind patterns and heavy reliance on petrochemical refining, shipping, and manufacturing are significant contributors to pollution.
Rotterdam falls in the larger metropolitan area that also includes The Hague. It is the seat of parliament in the Netherlands as well as the headquarters for the UN’s International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court (ICC).
So Rotterdam attracts many foreign nationals either seeking assistance or lodging complaints to these institutions. This often leads to densely populated urban areas, a high cost of living, and increased traffic emissions.
12. Brussels, Belgium
Photo by Polly on Unsplash
NO2 levels: 31,2 µg/m3 (125% over WHO safe standard)
The Belgian capital offers some of the most spectacular attractions across the world. It’s home to many Art Deco taverns, Gothic cathedrals, chocolate shops, and stunning European palaces, some of which are declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The city is also a hub of international relations, being the European Union’s administrative centre, as well as other EU institutions. This, along with Brussels’ financial hubs and chemical manufacturing plants, further contribute to the city’s NO2 levels. These industries are often run from tall buildings that use a lot of energy for heating and cooling.
In addition, Brussels deals with secondary contributing factors like the high cost of living and urban areas that are densely populated due to EU-related employment. Due to extensive residential heating, especially in winter, the city experiences larger emissions of harmful gases.
13. Oslo, Norway
Photo by Marian Rotea on Unsplash
NO2 levels: 30,5 µg/m3 (122% over WHO safe standard)
Oslo is the quintessential European city filled with Nordic history in its museums, stunning architecture like the Oslo Cathedral, and mouthwatering seafood. The Nordmarka Wilderness Area is the city’s largest forested region, offering many outdoor activities like camping.
But just as pollution is a recurring theme in most of Europe, the same is true for Oslo. The city experiences heavy air pollution coming from its maritime and shipping-related activities. Oslo’s large wood industry also plays a crucial role in emissions caused by burning fuels.
The city has a growing cost of living and densely populated urban areas caused by petroleum industry-related employment. In the winter, most households use wood for cooking and burning, which worsens pollution levels.
14. Athens, Greece
NO2 levels: 30,5 µg/m3 (122% over WHO safe standard)
The Greek capital is a place of many wonders. From the majestic Acropolis sitting on a hilltop to the numerous museums, temples, and charming Cycladic villages, you’ll find many great things to do in Athens, and then some.
The city is historically acclaimed as the birthplace of democracy, and you can catch a glimpse of this momentous time by exploring seven of the city’s top archaeological sites via a tour. But while you’re enjoying your Greece itinerary, remember that the air isn’t the cleanest.
Athens deals with high pollution levels caused by shipping activities, construction, and topographic factors, as mountains surround the city. The city also experiences many tourists that flock to its picture-perfect island each year.
The extensive tourism, high levels of unemployment, and rapid urban sprawl have also made a significant contribution to the rising levels of NO2 in Athens.
15. Sofia, Bulgaria
Photo by Tsvetelina Yankova on Pexels
NO2 levels: 30 µg/m3 (120% over WHO safe standard)
Filled with stunning buildings, churches, historical sites, ancient ruins, and nature spots like the Rila Lakes and Vitosha Mountain, Sofia is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. The capital of Bulgaria boasts remarkable museums, churches, and nightlife worth experiencing.
Sofia’s main pollutants are emissions caused by traffic, industrial activities like food manufacturing, and residential heating. These contribute massively to the levels of NO2 being released into the air. Light manufacturing and construction have also worsened the pollution.
Secondary factors like low cost of living, limited access to economic activities, and cleaner technology have also caused pollution spikes in densely populated areas. Sofia also has a heavy reliance on the use of older vehicles for transportation, thus increasing emissions.
16. London, United Kingdom
Photo by Ollie Craig on Pexels
NO2 levels: 29,4 µg/m3 (118% over WHO safe standard)
Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Big Ben, and the Tower of London are a few of the first landmarks in London that most people think of when discussing the British capital. However, there are many unusual experiences you’ll find in London, and pollution is one of them.
London battles high levels of NO2 pollution caused by emissions and industrial activities from the city’s financial services and information technology. The use of special effects in production and high energy consumption activities in the media and entertainment sectors further contribute to pollution.
The city attracts many immigrants seeking work and a better quality of life; thus some urban areas experience extreme population density. Other contributing factors include London’s high cost of living. This forces many to low-income housing near industrial plants, which are regions that have fewer government services like street cleaning.
17. Lyon, France
Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels
NO2 levels: 29,2 µg/m3 (117% over WHO safe standard)
Last but certainly not least, Lyon is a French city blessed with an enormous Renaissance heritage. The city boasts some of the best landmarks in France, like the majestic Fourvière Hill, the Presqu’île shopping district, and the UNESCO-inscribed neighbourhood of La Croix-Rousse.
But like other European cities on this list, Lyon experiences high levels of air pollution within the city centre. Lyon’s pollution problem can be attributed to the city’s traffic emissions, residential heating and burning of fuels, as well as industrial waste from manufacturing plants.
The city’s key industries include pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing, as well as food processing. These sectors draw in numerous migrants, thus leading to high urban density near industrial areas. A high cost of living also contributed to this urban sprawl.
FAQs About the Europe’s Most Polluted Cities
Here are some commonly asked questions regarding the pollution levels across Europe.
What European City Is Famous for Its Smog?
Although it does not appear on this list, Milan is largely considered the Italian smog capital. The city has high levels of primary air pollutants like PM2.5, PM10, and NO2; thus, the pollution can be seen in the sky.
What Country in Europe Has the Most Polluted Air?
Germany. With a few of its major cities frequently appearing on this list, it is no surprise that the country has the most pollution in Europe. France and Italy are also contenders for this title.
Which European City Has the Cleanest Air?
According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the cities of Umeå in Sweden, as well as Faro and Funchal in Portugal, have some of the cleanest air in Europe.
Most Polluted Cities in Europe | Wrapped Up
There you have it — 17 of the most polluted cities in Europe. This continent that many only associate with historic landmarks, ancient ruins, and groundbreaking developments of the world (and, to a greater extent) life as we know it.
The most polluted cities in Europe face high levels of NO2 contamination. Their large industrial and manufacturing hubs have released millions of smog into the air from as early as the First Industrial Revolution.
While many of the cities on this list have mandated a course of action to deal with pollution, increased access to information and government services would go a long way. These cities are often cited as the most beautiful places in Europe. So instead of just looking up the must-see attractions, also take some time to research the level of air pollution.
This will give you a clearer approach when picking your next vacation spot. You’ll have the knowledge to choose your destination based on not only what you see but what’s in the air.