Air pollution, Europe’s largest environmental health hazard

Health issues surrounding air quality were brought into the spotlight this week with World Asthma Day, which takes place every year in May.

There is no doubt that air pollution is unhealthy and that it aggravates conditions such as asthma. The seriousness of the issue is one that the European Commission has grappled with for some time.

The European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients’ Association (EFA) report that 10 times more people are killed by air pollution than by road accidents in the European Union.

The Air Quality in Europe report, published late last year by the European Environmental Agency (EEA), found that air pollution had significantly impacted the health of Europeans, particularly in urban areas. It analysed air quality from 2000 to 2014 based on data from official monitoring stations across Europe, including more than 400 cities.

Air quality, according to the report, was slowly improving but air pollution remained the single largest environmental health hazard in Europe, resulting in a lower quality of life due to illnesses and an estimated 467,000 premature deaths per year.

The report also showed that in 2014 around 85 percent of the urban population in the EU were exposed to fine particulate matter at levels deemed harmful to health by the World Health Organization (WHO). Particulate matter can cause or aggravate cardiovascular diseases, asthma and lung cancer.

“Emission reductions have led to improvements in air quality in Europe, but not enough to avoid unacceptable damage to human health and the environment,” said EEA executive director Hans Bruyninckx on publication of the report.

The EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive sets limit values for air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide (NO2), an irritant gas which at high concentrations causes inflammation of the airways. Long term exposure can decrease lung function, increase the risk of respiratory conditions and increase the response to allergens.

When the limits of the directive are exceeded, member states are required to adopt and implement air quality plans to resolve the issue.

Despite this obligation, air quality has remained a problem with 23 out of 28 member states still exceeding air quality limits, which includes more than 130 cities across Europe.

Legal wrangling and penalties

In February this year, the commission had sent final warnings to Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the UK for failing to address repeated breaches of air pollution limits for NO2.

In Germany 28 air quality zones were highlighted including Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Cologne; France (19 zones including Paris, Marseille and Lyon); the United Kingdom (16 zones, among them London, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow); Italy (12 zones, including Rome, Milan and Turin) and Spain (3 zones, one being Madrid and two covering Barcelona).

It is up to the individual countries to choose the appropriate measures to address the exceeding limits, but the commission said much more effort was necessary at local, regional and national levels to meet their obligations.

If member states fail to act within two months, it may decide to take the matter to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). A legal process that could ultimately end in significant fines for the offending country.

And the commission is not fearful of taking the legal route. It has already taken legal action against member states over poor air quality, focusing initially on particulate matter for which the compliance deadline was 2005. The deadline for compliance for NO2 was 2010.

In April, Bulgaria was found guilty by the ECJ for systematic and constant exceeding of EU norms on fine particulate matter over its whole country. The ruling issued no financial penalties against the country, although it did have to pay its own costs and that of the commission.

Poland is the next to face a case on fine particulate matter in front of the ECJ.

To date legal action on NO2 involves 12 member states, with ongoing infringement cases against Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Of the five countries issued a final warning, Italy has not responded in time, a commission source told EUobserver last week. France and the UK replied on time, but the commission was still assessing the responses. Both Spain and Germany requested an extension.

It is thought likely that further action against other member countries may follow.

With the UK set to start Brexit negotiations, the commitment to air quality could be a topic of exit discussions.

The UK government has already tried to keep its plans under wraps citing its general election rules, but it was ordered last week to publish its plans after a High Court ruling.

Despite the legal wranglings and threat of penalties, there still seems to be continuing challenges for EU states to meet their requirements under the air quality directive.

Real cost to the economy

Only last month, a political call to action was made for more effort to tackle triggers to allergies and asthma. The call to action pushed for stronger action to guarantee clean air and was made by a multi-stakeholder partnership between the European Parliament Interest Group on Allergy and Asthma, the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology and EFA.

EFA president Mikaela Odemyr said: “The rise of allergy, asthma and COPD is intimately linked to the quality of the air people breathe in.”

“We have been advocating through EFA for stronger air quality legislation at European level with some satisfactory results like stricter pollution levels by 2030 for more pollutants, but local and national authorities should prioritise air quality compliance into their policies, and to respect the levels set.”

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) agrees that there needs to be more action against member states, saying that people in Europe were becoming more and more aware of the dangers of toxic air pollution.

EEB spokesman Anton Lazarus told EUobserver that the failure of states to meet air quality limits was “worrying”.

“European laws are designed to protect citizens from harm, and EU action against member states that fail to tackle illegal air should be welcomed and encouraged. As citizens, this is a perfect example of ‘what Europe can do for us’,” he said.

“More stringent penalties could be effective in forcing governments to act, but they shouldn’t be necessary given that reducing pollution has huge health, environmental and even economic benefits. Every person suffering from bronchitis or asthma, and unable to work as a result, is a real cost to the economy; governments need to understand this.”

This view was backed by European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), which argues that strict implementation of existing EU standards on air quality is vital for public health.

“Financial incentives are vital to ensure the proper implementation of EU law. Member states should not regard implementing policies as costs but rather as an investment,” EPHA policy coordinator Zoltan Massay-Kosubek told EUobserver.

“A healthy economy needs a healthy population – yet air pollution hampers economic productivity, and the health related economic costs are enormous – the health costs from air pollution alone is estimated [to be] €330 – €940 billion a year,” he added.

The WHO said that while its own guidelines are not legally binding, it works closely with EU countries to provide evidence for sound policy-development to improve air quality.

Air pollution is responsible for a significant burden on health, environment, national economies and wellbeing in Europe, the WHO told EUobserver.

New air quality standards

While the commission grapples with the failure of members to meet the air quality directive, EU member states, on 28 April, agreed to new air pollution standards for large combustion plants (LCP), which in large part affects the coal industry.

According to the EEB, the 280 coal-fired power plants in the EU – which produces one-quarter of all the electricity generated in the bloc – are responsible for more than 70% of the EU’s sulphur dioxide emissions and more than 40% of nitrogen oxide emissions from the industry sector.

The so called LCP BREF sets lower emissions levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM) into the air, as well as, for the first time, mercury.

If strictly implemented across the EU, the resulting emissions reductions could save more than 20,000 lives each year from coal pollution alone, according to a report published last October.

The new standards will have to be complied with by 2021.

But like the air quality directive, the LCP BREF will be a test of member states and, in this case, industry’s will to clean Europe’s air.

Source: Air pollution, Europe’s largest environmental health hazard

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