April 13, 2024

Po Valley: Air pollution is causing serious health risks to more than 16 million Italians

Italy’s industrial hub has a long way to go to reach the EU’s goal of zero air pollution.


Sitting at the kitchen table in Modena, in the Italian province of Emilia Romagna, Valentina reviews her and her husband’s family’s medical history.

Cancer has been common on both sides, with Valentina (54) beating breast cancer several years ago and her husband Andrea (55) in recent remission from bone marrow cancer.

“It would be likely that this situation would be worsened by pollution,” Valentina told Euronews Green.

The Po Valley, where the couple lives, is one of the most polluted places in Europe in terms of air quality. Large cities such as Milan, in Lombardy, and Turin, in Piedmont, suffer from strong pollutants from traffic and indoor heating from burning wood, as well as from industries such as agriculture, engineering and ceramics.

“Our family is moved by this situation. Probably if we lived in another municipality without this industrial distribution it might be different.”

The links between air pollution and health problems

Nitrous dioxide, ozone and inhalable particulate matter (PM) – especially PM10 and PM2.5 – are among the most harmful products in the atmosphere. They are causing serious health risks to the more than 16 million Italians who live in Po Valley.

According to datasets released by the European Environment Agency (EEA), Italy had 11,282 premature deaths due to exposure to nitrogen dioxide in 2021, the highest in Europe.

Cancer It is also the second leading cause of death in the country, with lung cancer responsible for the highest number of deaths among men and women.

Although the North is economically richer, has a better diet, has fewer smokers and fewer overweight people than the South of the country, the Po region has a higher cancer mortality rate, highlighted a report from the University of Bologna.

“All studies clearly and unequivocally state that there is a direct link between living in a highly polluted area and high risks of health degeneration”, says Professor Signorelli, president of the Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region (ASPHER).

Urban centers are particularly at risk, with the city of Cremona, in the Lombardy region, having the fourth highest concentration of PM2.5 in Europe, according to the EEA.

Cities such as Verona, Padua and Vicenza also recorded an increase in PM2.5 between 2018 and 2022, a report by the European Data Journalism Network concluded.

A difficult fight for the Po regions

The geography that allowed Italy industrializing your North is the same thing that has caused the degradation of air quality. Its plains provide 35 percent of the country’s agricultural production and are home to factories that produce tiles and bricks.

Surrounded by the Alps to the north and the Apennine mountain range to the south, air pollutants are trapped in the valley. An unhealthy concentration increases in its densely populated cities.

“The Po Valley is characterized by high levels of urbanization with weather conditions generally unfavorable to the dispersion of pollutants,” explains Secondo Barbero, general director of the Regional Environmental Protection Agency (ARPA) of Piedmont.

This is especially true during the winter, when there is little wind and cooler, denser air moves more slowly, trapping pollutants in the atmosphere. This increasing stagnation also means that people are exposed to these pollutants for longer than in the summer.

“Therefore, reducing pollution levels below the limits established by EU legislation requires a much greater effort in the Po Valley than in other areas,” says Barbero.

However, there has been some improvement in the last 20 years. The abandonment of fossil fuels in transport and domestic heating systems has resulted in a slight drop in pollutants in the valley’s atmosphere.


The year 2023 even saw the amount of PM10, PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide fall within nationally recommended limits, making it one of the best years in terms of minimized levels of PM10 and PM2.5 in the atmosphere.

“A better information campaign is needed”

Like many, Beatrice Bos wants to see change. A team leader at Our Youth 4 Climate Milano, she educates young people about environmental issues in Milan and Lombardy.

Milan It is a city with major pollution problems, but no one is truly aware of its critical state, especially in comparison to other areas in Europe”, he explains.

The importance of the region cannot be underestimated. With a third of Italy’s population and almost half of the GDP generated there, it is no wonder that national institutions and private companies are not eager to highlight how damaging this productivity can be for Italy’s population. the Dust.

But climate action demands change. According to a report prepared by a commission from the Italian Ministry of Sustainable Infrastructure and Mobility, an additional investment of 16 billion euros is needed to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.


“Certainly, the majority of the population is aware of the dangers of this pollution”, says Barbara Meggetto, president of the Legambiente Lombardia branch.

Legambiente is Italy’s largest non-profit environmental organization, funding research and promoting more ambitious environmental policies within regional and national government.

“Institutional communication has always avoided confronting citizens with the causes, precisely to avoid affecting purchasing behavior and mobility habits”, he states, “effectively providing a kind of institutional alibi with regard to the need to develop more sustainable mobility of people and goods.”

The secretary of the Emilia Romagna branch of Legambiente, Paola Fagioli, agreed that “a better information campaign is needed”.

Following the approval of the Ambient Air Quality Directive in February by the European Environment Office, the EU now aims to reduce air pollution as much as possible, down to net zero emissions by 2050.


Italy’s Po Valley is fighting its geological, meteorological, political and economic constraints to get there.

In Modena, Valentina kisses Andrea, who has worked as an electrical engineer for most of her life and has recently come out of two years of hospital stays because of her cancer.

“It is difficult to demonstrate the link between pollution and our cancer. If they demonstrate this connection, they will have to close a large part of the area,” she says.

Valentina shrugs with a half smile: “There’s not enough research.”

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