Ground-level ozone concentrations exceeded legal limits in every EU member state, and at many individual measurement sites, in 2013, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA)'s annual report, released yesterday (13 March).
But although the number of violations of safe ozone levels was high, they have decreased in volume over recent decades, the report noted, and are at their lowest level since reporting began in 1997.
“Since 2007, ozone levels have returned to their lower and more usual levels,” the report stated. “The year 2013 was no exception.”
Recent scientific studies have shown that ground-level ozone pollution is harmful to human health even at very low levels. “This means that levels are still far too high,” the EEA says
Ozone is a harmful pollutant that has been shown to harm lung functioning, irritate respiratory systems and increase the risk of death from cardiovascular and respiratory failure.
The EU’s long term objective of containing ozone concentrations was exceeded in 83% of reporting stations, and at least once in every EU member state, according to the EEA.
The ‘alert threshold’ at which ozone concentrations are twice the level considered harmful to human health was broken 27 times.
This mostly happened during July and the first days of August in 2013, with Mediterranean and Alpine regions being the worst affected.
In some countries, up to two-fifths of the population were exposed to levels exceeding limits, the report says.
A separate study found that in 2012, almost all inhabitants of cities in the EU were exposed to ozone levels above World Health Organisation guidelines, which are stricter than the EU limits.
Ground-level ozone is a 'secondary pollutant', which means it is formed in chemical reactions between other pollutants in the air, particularly in warm weather.
In December 2013, the European Commission adopted a Clean Air Policy package to reduce emissions, including those of ozone percursors, introducing new objectives for 2030.
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.