- Dangerous dust
The main novelty of the new air quality law is that it introduces a limit on emissions of fine particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). These microscopic particles, particularly if emitted by industrial activity or road traffic, pose increased health risks due to their ability to bypass unfiltered through the nose and mouth, penetrating deep into human lungs and bloodstreams, where they can cause potentially fatal respiratory and/or pulmonary diseases.
PM2.5 were previously not subject to any EU regulations.
In urban areas, member states will be obliged to reduce levels of PM2.5 by an average of 20% by 2020 compared with 2010 exposure levels. By 2015, PM2.5 levels in urban areas will need to be reduced to below 20 micrograms per cubic metre, with a binding limit value of 25 micrograms by 2015 set for member state territories as a whole.
Beyond binding measures, member states are 'encouraged' to reach the 25 microgram level as early as 2010, the year the law enters into force, with an additional 'indicative' or non-binding target of 20 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre by 2020. The Commission will review and potentially update this target in 2013.
Existing laws concerning larger, and less dangerous, PM10 limits will not be updated by the new law and will remain at an average of 40 micrograms per cubic metre. But the text does include a new derogation that gives member states until 2011 to implement the PM10 limits in cases where "site-specific dispersion characteristics, adverse climatic conditions or trans-boundary contributions" prevent an earlier decrease of particle emissions.
- Following the US lead?
The measures will bring EU laws more in line with existing legislation in the US, which passed similar PM2.5 limits in 1997.
Fine particle concentrations are higher in the EU than the US because of Europe's higher population density over a smaller territory. The continued use of old communist era vehicles in central and eastern Europe as well as a higher percentage of diesel use in the vehicle fleet also contribute to high EU PM2.5 levels.
- More laws in the pipeline
As part of the agreement on the new law, the Commission agreed to attach a declaration to the text in which it promises to put forward in 2008 new legislative proposals that will address the source of pollution, particularly from heavy-duty vehicle engines, the sulphur content of marine fuels, and emissions released during the fueling of vehicles at petrol stations.
Mandatory particulate matter filters for heavy vehicles, ships and household heating systems will likely feature as part of these proposals.