Secret Smokers: The Impact of Fine Particulate Exposure

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Air pollution is the largest environmental health risk facing European populations, with fine particulate matter (PM2.5) having a major impact on human health, premature disease, and premature death. The European Commission has aligned its air quality standards with the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations on air quality, and as part of its zero pollution action plan has set out to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by PM2.5 by a minimum of 55% by 2030, relative to those in 2005. 

While national and regional policies have played a role in reducing exposure to fine particulates, with annual mean concentrations decreasing on average by 22% in the decade 2009-18. The  European Environment Agency products that the target decline of 55% in premature deaths will be achievable by 2026, based on the continuation of the observed trend, however continuing this rate over the next decade is set to be challenging. As such, Distrelec has analysed fine particulate levels across the European region to conceptualise the equivalent in cigarettes and to compare current levels of mortality against the cost of implementing IoT sensors to better measure air quality. 

Fine Particulate Exposure in Europe, Conceptualised

The EU imposes a limit of 25µg/m3 of exposure to PM2.5 annually, with all European capitals falling below this except for Sarajevo and Skopje. However when it comes to the stricter WHO air quality guidelines (5µg/m3), all of the European capitals except for Tallinn, Estonia were at levels higher than this. Information from EEA Europa indicates an increase in the risk of mortality of 8% for a 10 µg/m3 increase in concentrations of PM 2.5, and with 22µg/m3 being roughly the equivalent of one cigarette, Distrelec wanted to highlight these figures in a way that’s easy to comprehend and propose a technological solution to how we approach air pollution monitoring. 

While Europe didn’t fare as poorly as some of the other international countries within our study, when visualised as the equivalent number of cigarettes smoked annually, the reality of fine particulate exposure comes into perspective. For reference, the worst performer in our study was N’Djamena, Chad, with fine particulate exposure the equivalent of smoking 4.1 cigarettes daily, or 1488 annually, which is the same as 74 entire packs. Despite this, on a country-wide basis, they placed second lowest with 163.74 deaths per 1,000,000 inhabitants being attributed to air pollution. 

This was followed by 21 other international countries and capitals, including New Delhi (India), Kathmandu (Nepal), and Lima (Peru), varying between annual equivalents in terms of cigarette packs ranging from 21 to 74. And while the European results didn’t reach the same heights, to those concerned with their general health and wellness, these findings will likely be shocking. 

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ranked highest in our study when it came to European countries, with a fine particulate matter exposure equivalent to smoking 26.87 packs of cigarettes annually, or 538 individual cigarettes. The country also had the fourth-highest mortality rate per 1,000,000 inhabitants of the 47 countries we studied, much higher than Chad and India where particulate exposure is higher. 

This was followed by four international countries that fell within the range of 24 to 26 packs of cigarettes annually, including Yerevan (Armenia), Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Beijing (China), and Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan).   

Skopje, North Macedonia placed second in our study, with fine particulate exposure the equivalent of smoking 22 packs of cigarettes annually, or 1.20 cigarettes daily. This corresponded with the country having the highest mortality rate in association with air pollution of all of the countries that we studied, with a rate of 1321 deaths per 1,000,000 inhabitants being attributed. Research has shown that high levels of premature mortality in the Balkans relating to air pollution are the result of burning solid fuels for domestic heating and industry. 

Zagreb, Croatia fell just behind Skopje and Lima (Peru) with 22.07 packs of cigarettes annually but ranked in tenth position when it came to mortality rates, seeing higher air pollution-related deaths than countries like India. 

Falling within some of the lowest European particulate exposure and ranking outside of this visualisation were London (UK) with an annual equivalent of 7.96 packs of cigarettes, Madrid (Spain) with 7.88, Dublin (Ireland) with 5.88, and Nordic regions. Copenhagen (Denmark) had an equivalent of 7.21 packs annually or 144 individual cigarettes, Oslo (Norway) had 5.72 annual packs, Stockholm (Sweden) had 5.64, and Helsinki (Finland) had 4.56. 

Mortality Rates Versus The Cost of Implementing IoT Sensors

While air pollution monitoring systems are vastly improving, with more and more countries developing the infrastructure required to effectively host IoT sensors, Distrelec wanted to examine how much the estimated costs of capital-city-wide IoT sensors would be to enable hyper-local air pollution monitoring. This would allow residents to check real-time air pollution levels of their street or neighbourhood in order to make more informed decisions about exposure to fine particulates, potentially limiting some of the air pollution-related mortality rates set out in this report. This could also have an impact on where people choose to live, as well as government policy surrounding climate change and air pollution to best concentrate resources on the areas that need them the most. 

The below graphic details the countries ranked in order of the highest cost of sensor implementation, as well as the mortality rates associated with air pollution in each of these. 

The Countries and Capitals That Would Benefit the Most from IoT Sensor Implementation

In particular, we wanted to explore the countries where mortality rates were highest and the costs of sensor implementation low to moderate in contrast with this to show which areas would benefit the most from improved air pollution monitoring. 

Athens, Greece could be a viable candidate for IoT sensors given their rates of air pollution mortality have reached 545.87 per 1,000,000 inhabitants, at a total cost of $5236.22. Similarly, Tirana, Albania has a mortality rate of 532.03 per 1,000,000 inhabitants and a cost of implementation of $5,617.92. Meanwhile, Sarajevo, which ranked the highest in Europe when it came to our fine particulate visualisation, could also see the benefit of increased air pollution monitoring, with a high mortality rate of 1094.15 per 1,000,000 inhabitants and a total cost of implementation of $19,017.60. 

Internationally, New Delhi and Kathmandu could also benefit from improved air pollution monitoring. India has a mortality rate of 717.17 per 1,000,000 inhabitants, while Nepal has a rate of 625.1 per 1,000,000 inhabitants. This could be mediated by investment into IoT sensors of $5738.88 to cover the capital New Delhi and $6,646.08 for Kathmandu. 

Which Cost is Greater: Mortality Versus Financials?

There are several areas where high costs in terms of human life, also correlate with a high cost in implementing sensors. The area where this investment proves to be the most substantial is Beijing, China. The mortality rate stands at 993.58 per 1,000,000 inhabitants and the total cost of implementing sensors at $2,205,571. Meanwhile, in Europe, Zagreb, Croatia falls within the top 15 in terms of the most expensive capitals to implement IoT sensors at $86,150.40, with a mortality rate of 743.8 per 1,000,000 inhabitants.

Ultimately, this study reveals the gravity of air pollution within Europe and internationally, as well as its impact on public health. Many countries have air pollution reduction plans in place, however, given society’s acceptance of burgeoning technology and the growing development of smart cities, IoT sensors could be a viable solution for hyperlocal real-time monitoring to better refine strategy and allow citizens to make informed decisions. Whether this is in the form of self-protection methods such as keeping windows closed, avoiding areas of high pollution and using a home air purifier, or even using an air purifying mask when out in public, this could enable citizens to have better control over their health. 


We used data from IQ air to gauge PM2.5 exposure across European and international capital cities and then compared this with the statistic that exposure levels of 22µg/m3 are roughly the equivalent of one cigarette. 

We then took the size of these capitals in kilometres squared and used the assumption that successful air pollution monitoring within an urban space would require IoT sensors 3 miles apart to calculate how many sensors would be required, using market averages to estimate the cost. We then compared the financial cost with the cost of human life by exploring air pollution-related mortality in the areas studied. 

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