Italy has been "systematically and persistently" exceeding daily and annual limits of particulate matter pollution permitted by EU rules, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on Tuesday (10 November).
From 2008 to 2017, "the daily and annual limit values for PM10 particulate matter were very regularly exceeded'' in several Italian cities, the court said.
The ECJ concluded that Italy has "manifestly failed" to adopt timely measures to tackle pollution as required by the timeframe set out in the EU law on clean air.
Tuesday's ruling ends the first cycle of the infringement procedure started by the European Commission against Italy in 2014.
In 2018, the European Commission also decided to refer Hungary and Romania, France, Germany and the United Kingdom to the ECJ for failing to respect limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) - another air pollutant produced as a result of road traffic and other fossil fuel combustion processes.
In 2019, Italy then joined the group of countries referred to the EU top court for exceeding the legal limits NO2.
According to the European Environment Agency, Italy has the most premature deaths in the EU related to NO2 pollution.
A report of the European public health alliance published earlier this year identified that Milan, Padua, Venice, Brescia and Turin are among the top 10 EU cities with the highest costs stemming from air pollution.
It is estimated that air pollution in Italy costs €1,535 per person each year.
According to environmental lawyer Ugo Taddei from NGO ClientEarth, "this ruling is the result of years of poor management of the issue at the regional and national level - a failure which has put people's health on the line".
"We need to see a complete turnaround, with new regional air quality plans that slash levels of pollution in the shortest time possible, to bring air quality within legal limits," he also said, adding that being forced to breathe dirty air in the 21st century is "unacceptable".
In 2017, the environmentalist NGO launched legal action against Lombardy, Italy's most-polluted region, to force local authorities to update their air quality plan.
Earlier this year, the commission concluded that a majority of member states are off-target to deliver on their air pollution reduction commitments for 2020 and 2030.
Every year, air pollution causes about 400,000 premature deaths in the EU.
While scientists are currently carrying out studies to assess the link between air pollution and Covid-19, a 2003 study on the victims of the respiratory disease SARS found that patients in regions with 'moderate' air pollution levels were 84 percent more likely to die than those in regions with 'low' air pollution.