The ruling is the first of its kind in the UK and recently caused international news as coroners have previously declined to blame air pollution in a death.

That made me think how fortunate we are to live in the Algarve, we have some of the cleanest, least polluted air in Europe. The cleanest cities in Europe in terms of air quality during 2020 and 2021 were Umeå in Sweden, and Faro and Funchal according to the updated European city air quality data viewer published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) recently.

Could the Algarve really be number one?

That gives Portugal, specifically the Algarve and Madeira, two out of three. There are many factors that put us in the lead, not least fresh Atlantic air, a low level of road traffic and a good balance of nature. Faro (No 2 in the European ranking) is named as that’s where the only monitoring station is located. If the monitoring station was moved away from a large city and an international airport, we might have well-been number one. Madeira ranks at No 3. The calculations are based on fine particle in matter in ug/m3. A bit technical but it stands for particulate matter (also called particle pollution): the term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope. Just because they are so small doesn’t mean they are still not there and you can be breathing them in.

Umeå, No1, rates at 3.1 particles in matter. Faro (Algarve) rates at 3.6, Funchal (Madeira) rates at 3.9. A very low presence of pollutants. To get this in perspective, London can rate as high as 21 μg/m, up to seven times higher pollutants in the air compared to the Algarve. Compare traffic levels in London to traffic levels in the Algarve and you can see why. On top of that they don’t get fresh Atlantic-washed air. Lisbon rates 8.7 while the Oporto area rates at 8.1

Beware of the microparticles

Some particles are more dangerous than others. Particles such as dust, soot, dirt or smoke, are large or dark enough to be visible. But the most damaging particles are minuscule particles, known as PM10 and PM2.5. PM2.5 particles are invisible to the naked eye and small enough to pass through the lungs, into the bloodstream, and into your organs. Generally, they come from the combustion of solid and liquid fuels, through power generation, domestic heating and in-vehicle engines. Air pollution is a serious risk to our health, we need to take this seriously.

Ozone from the sea are good for us, or are they?

According to the BBC Science Focus, “It's likely better than inhaling city smog, but that doesn't necessarily mean there are any particular health benefits to breathing in sea air”.

We have always believed that ozone from the sea is really good for us. BBC Science Focus went on to say “It isn't, particularly. In Victorian England, seaside resorts acquired a reputation for the health-giving qualities of the air, but this may just have been relative to the distinctly unhealthy city smog of the time. Certainly, the idea that ozone or iodine might be inhaled in physiologically significant concentrations is unfounded. In fact, the unique 'bracing' smell of the seaside is caused by dimethyl sulphide produced by coastal bacteria.

This isn't particularly good for you, but it is generally present in very low concentrations. However a study last year found that sea salt can react with chemicals in marine exhaust fumes to actually worsen atmospheric pollution. So, the air around a busy port maybe even less healthy than in a city.

Blame the Victorians

Sea air has traditionally been thought to offer health benefits associated with its unique odour, which Victorians attributed to ozone. More recently, it has been determined that the chemical responsible for much of the odour in the air along certain seashores is dimethyl sulphide, released by microbes.

Salts generally do not dissolve in the air but can be carried by sea spray in the form of particulate matter.

In the early 19th century, a lower prevalence of disease in coastal regions or islands was attributed to the sea air. Such medical beliefs were translated into the literature of Jane Austen and other authors.

Later that century, such beliefs led to the establishment of seaside resorts for the treatment of tuberculosis, with medical beliefs of its efficacy continuing into the 20th century. However, the quality of sea air was often degraded by pollution from wood- and coal-burning ships. Today those fuels are gone, replaced by high sulphur oil in diesel engines, which generate sulphate aerosols.

Not everyone agrees with this. Publicity for a seafront hotel (biased?) claims that the benefits of sea air are also invaluable. It contains microscopic drops of seawater that are saturated with micronutrients, ozone and oxygen. After inhaling sea air through chemical reactions, microbes are destroyed. However, in order to fully experience all the benefits of the sea, it is necessary to spend on the beach not the standard 10-14 days, but at least 4-6 weeks. Sounds good.

Several factors put the Algarve in the lead for clean air

It seems evident that ozone’s are not responsible for our clean air. Few factories, and those we have are small, low density of traffic, an abundance of countryside and trees, these all contribute to giving some of the cleanest air in Europe. That is seriously good for our health. Yet another good reason to breathe deeply, and relax.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman