Air pollution remains Europe's most serious environmental health threat.
Figures for 2020, just released by the European Environment Agency, show that "exposure to concentrations of fine particulate matter above the 2021 World Health Organization (WHO) guideline level resulted in 238,000 premature deaths" in the 27-nation bloc.
That was slightly more than the number recorded in 2019, despite a fall in emissions due to Covid curbs.
In 2020, 96 percent of the EU's urban population was breathing concentrations of fine particles above the WHO's limit of 5 microgrammes per cubic metre of air.
Fine particulate matter is the technical term for microscopic dust grains spewed into the atmosphere by car and aircraft engines, and by coal-fired power stations.
The tiny size of the particles enables them to travel deep into the human respiratory tract, worsening the risk of bronchitis, asthma and lung disease.
The same report says exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) above the WHO's recommended threshold led to 49,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2020.
Acute exposure to ozone (O3) caused 24,000 people to die early.
If the trend for an increased number of excess deaths from fine particle pollution is clear from the figures for 2019 and 2020, excess mortality due exposure to nitrogen dioxide and ozone declined.
The report suggests that the increase in fine particle mortality, despite a fall in concentrations during the Covid lockdown, can be explained by the fact that the pandemic led to the deaths of people already living with diseases related to air pollution.
The EU wants to slash premature deaths related to fine particulate matter pollution by 55 percent in 2030 compared to 2005 levels.
Overall, the rate for EU countries in 2020 was 45 percent lower than in 2005, the agency said. In 2005, 431,000 excess deaths were attributed to air pollution in the EU.
"If this rate of decline is maintained, the European Union will reach its zero pollution action plan target before 2030."
According to the WHO, air pollution causes seven million premature deaths per year worldwide, putting it on par with smoking or poor nutrition.