WHO air pollution review prompts new EU policy promises

Cars sit in traffic in Brussels, one of the most congested cities in Europe. [Reuters]

The European Commission has promised a review of the EU's clean air standards later this year after new research by the World health Organization (WHO) suggested links between air pollution and health conditions ranging from neurodevelopment disorders to cardiovascular and respiratory deaths.

A new WHO scientific report, the 'Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution', is causing a stir among EU policy circles in Brussels.

Published on Thursday (31 January), the report found that long-term exposure to fine dust particles, known as PM2.5, can trigger atherosclerosis, adverse birth outcomes and childhood respiratory diseases.

The United Nations’ health body, urges the EU to revamp its laws on particulate pollution to bring them in line with WHO’s far more stringent standards. Europe's limit for fine particulate matter pollution from vehicle exhaust and power plant emissions, known as PM2.5, is more than twice that of the WHO.

PM2.5 are tiny metals and toxic exhaust formed by smelting, vehicle exhaust, power plants and refuse burning. Their tiny diameter, smaller than 2.5 micrometers, means they penetrate deep into the lung, causing damage to human health.

Review of EU air pollution laws expected in September

The study was requested by the European Commission, which is expected to release a new strategy on air pollution by September. The Commission has declared 2013 the ‘Year of Air’.

Janez Poto?nik, the EU's Environment Commissioner, said "EU air policy must be based on the latest science" and promised a review of European legislation on air pollution this year.

"The links [the WHO review] has found between air pollution and human health reinforce the case for scaling up our policy: it will be a key input to the 2013 air quality policy review,” Poto?nik said in a statement.

The WHO report recommends modifications to EU law, as the current limit value for PM2.5 in the EU's Ambient Air Quality Directive is twice as high as the 2005 WHO Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs). A new AQG is also recommended for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a toxic gas produced by the combustion process in heating, power generation and especially vehicle engines. The review recommends the development of AQGs for long-term average ozone (O3) concentrations as well.

Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate action commissioner, acknowledged on Thursday (31 January) at a parliamentary conference on airport pollution that “it’s not an easy thing in these challenging economic times” to press for new anti-pollution legislation, but urged civic groups to pressure politicians for tougher rules.

She noted that pollution is a global challenge. Last week, Chinese politicians promised stronger pollution laws as the capital Beijing was enveloped in smog, the same time that traffic-clogged Brussels was under an unusual wintertime alert due to bad air quality. 

The WHO findings underscore what was already known about air pollution levels in the EU. Last September, a report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) showed that many city-dwellers breathe unhealthy levels of fine particulates and 97% are exposed to ozone levels that exceed the international standards.

>> Read: Most EU city dwellers suffer bad air days

Few urban areas escape irritating pollutants such as particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen, the EEA reported. Transport, energy and agriculture are the big culprits.

Deadly consequences

The Commission estimates that as many as 460,000 Europeans die prematurely each year because of poor air quality, with some health groups saying the toll is even higher. The EEA contends that shifting to electric vehicles and other anti-pollution measures could cut the death toll to 230,000 by 2020.

Air pollution has other widespread environmental effects, contributing to biodiversity loss, damaging plants and contributing to corrosion of buildings.

The EEA report showed 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 %. Despite today’s high levels, emissions of fine particulate matter have fallen by 15 % since 2000.

The following compares the WHO and EU pollution thresholds for humans measured as micrograms per cubic metre:

  • Ozone (O3): WHO per 8-hour period, 100; EU, 120
  • Larger particular matter, or PM10 (smoke, dirt and dust form coarse particles): WHO annually, 20; EU, 40.
  • Fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 (metals and toxic exhaust from smelting, vehicles, power plants and refuse burning forming fine particles): WHO annually, 10; EU (as of 2015), 25
  • Sulphur dioxide (SO2): WHO daily, 20; EU, 125
  • Carbon monoxide (CO): WHO and EU, 10 for an 8-hour period.

Air pollution has different particulate matter (PM) components – smoke, dirt and dust form coarse particles known as PM10, and metals and toxic exhaust from smelting, vehicle exhaust, power plants and refuse burning forming fine particles called PM2.5.

The 2008 air quality directive aimed at streamlining and tightening EU legislation dealing with pollution and air standards. It is due to be revised by 2013, and Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik seeks to consolidate many different EU regulations on air quality and pollution into a single law.

The 2008 rules set targets for reducing concentrations of fine particles that health officials say are dangerous pollutants for human health and that contribute to respiratory, sinus and other problems.

Under the directive member states must cut exposure to fine particulate matter by an average of 20% by 2020, based on 2010 levels.

Many of the policies grow out of a 2005 strategy on air pollution, which sought to cut sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 82%, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 60%, volatile organic compounds by 51%, ammonia by 27%, and primary fine particulates by 59% compared to the levels of 2000.

Health advocates says the cost of cutting emissions through better smokestack scrubbers, cleaner-burning vehicles and a shift to renewable fuels would be more than offset by savings in treating complications of bad air.

  • Sept. 2013: Commission expected to unveil its strategy on clean air

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