With an overhaul of air quality laws due within a year, health advocates are calling for the European Commission to resist pressure to tone down the EU’s pollution standards and instead replace them with stronger UN guidelines.
The call for tougher anti-pollution measures came two days after a report by the European Environment Agency showed that nearly one-third of urban residents breathe air that is far dirtier than the law allows. The tally rises to well over 80% when the recommendations of the UN World Heath Organization are applied.
“If we are serious about health, we have to apply these [WHO] standards,” Anne Stauffer, deputy director of the Brussels-based Health and Environment Alliance, told EurActiv yesterday (26 September).
“We know and see that air pollution continues to be a massive problem for the health of individuals and for our economies, and we think that the MEPs need to strengthen the guidelines and should reject attempts to weaken them,” Stauffer told a European Parliament hearing on air quality.
The European Commission is to present revisions to the EU’s 2008 air quality directive in 2013 – designated ‘The Year of Air’ by the EU executive. Air quality is expected to be among the priorities for Ireland when it takes over the rotating European Council presidency on 1 January 2013.
EEA’s report shows that nearly one-third of urbanites breathe high levels of particulate matter – or smoke, dirt, dust, and toxic vehicle and industrial exhaust – and 17% are exposed to high levels of ozone, ground-level pollutants that causes smog.
But EU figures belie the impact, health and environmental advocates say. The WHO recommends guidelines for these pollutants that are far more stringent, noting that bad air lops at least a year off the life expectancy of a European living in polluted urban areas.
Under the WHO guidelines, 80% of EU urban residents inhale particulate matter and 97% ozone at levels that can lead to respiratory and heart problems.
“It is rather clear that we are far exceeding most [levels] of pollutants, in particular the major pollutants, and if we compare to the WHO standards, they are much higher,” said Valentin Foltescu, the EEA’s air quality analyst.
Speaking at the Parliamentt’s Intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development, Foltescu said particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen dioxide are the leading polluters in cities. Nitrogen is one of the byproducts of diesel exhaust.
Air quality revamp
But any talk of tougher pollution guidelines may seem superfluous given the record of compliance with the existing measures. Some 20 countries have been accused of failing to implement or enforce the air quality directive.
Some of Europe’s most industrially productive regions have called for more flexibility in enforcing pollution rules at the risk of putting the brake on economic growth – something Stauffer and environmental groups say the Commission and European Parliament must resist.
The Commission has already shown flexibility. In June, the European Court of Justice handed two Dutch NGOs a victory when it ruled the Commission improperly rejected their request for a review of the executive’s decision to give the Netherlands a temporary exemption from the air quality laws. The case was brought by Vereniging Milieudefensie in Amsterdam and Stichting Stop Luchtverontreiniging in Utrecht in 2009, a year after the Air Quality Directive was adopted.
Meanwhile in Britain, the ClientEarth legal organisation launched several court challenges in the past year against the British government, arguing is breaching the 1 January 2010 EU deadline for complying with air quality plans for London and 16 other cities. The group contends that the government is neglecting its EU obligations to reduce emissions that contribute to urban smog and particulate pollution.
Those concerns were reinforced in a damning British Parliament Environmental Audit Committee report accusing the government of “putting thousands of lives at risk by trying to water down EU air quality rules”.
Both the parliamentary report and ClientEarth contend that chronic pollution and air quality problems in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and other cities kill upwards of 30,000 Britons annually.
While some of the European Union’s deadliest air can be found in Bulgaria and Romania, few urban areas escape unhealthy pollutants such as particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen. Transport, energy and agriculture are the main culprits.
Poor air quality has widespread human health and environmental effects, contributing to respiratory problems, damaging plants and contributing to corrosion of buildings. Some studies say bad air causes nearly 500,000 premature deaths per year in the EU – 0.1% of the bloc’s population – while the European Environment Agency contends that shifting to electric vehicles and other anti-pollution measures could cut the toll to 230,000 by 2020.
A September 2012 EEA report shows that while some pollutants remain stubbornly high, there has been headway in cutting emissions. Levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2), one of the most pernicious pollutants for human and ecological health, have plummeted 82% since 1990 thanks to more stringent smokestack scrubbing requirements. Carbon monoxide (CO) fell -62 %; non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), –56 %; nitrogen oxides (NOx), –47 %; and ammonia (NH3), –28 %. Emissions of fine particulate matter have fallen by 15 % since 2000.
In a further bid to reduce pollutants, the European Parliament recently approved legislation to slash sulphur levels in shipping fuels, a move environmentalists say will help prevent thousands of premature deaths especially in coastal areas.
- 2013: 'Year of Air' as declared by Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik.
- World Health Organization: Air quality and health
EU official documents
- European Commission: Staff Working Paper on EU Air Qaulity Policy
- European Commission: Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution
- European Environment Agency: Air quality in Europe (2012)