Editorial: Clear the air

Everyone has the right to breathe clean air. In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) released revised guidelines for four outdoor air pollutants: particulate matter (PM), ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide. For some pollutants, such as PM, no threshold value for harmful effects could be determined, and WHO therefore decided to set values, which if achieved, would be expected to result in significantly reduced rates of adverse health effects.

The EU annual limit value for PM10 of 40 microgrammes per cubic metre (µg/m3)is twice as high as recommended by the WHO. In addition the EU has a daily limit value of 50 µg/m3, the same as recommended by the WHO, but which is allowed to be exceeded 35 days every year.

Clearly, the EU’s air quality standards are insufficient to protect people’s health. Despite the weakness of these standards, legal proceedings are currently ongoing against ten member states for failing to comply with the mandatory PM10 standards – limits that should have been met back in 2005.

Evidence of the health hazards posed by air pollutants is clear and unambiguous. The Commission’s own analysis concluded in 2005 that because of air pollution 370,000 people die prematurely every year in the EU. Further effects of air pollution on the environment include ecosystem damage through eutrophication, acidification and ground-level ozone.

PM alone is estimated to be responsible for 350,000 premature deaths yearly. That equals one premature death every one and a half minutes. Moreover, the current levels of PM are estimated to be responsible for around 100,000 cases of respiratory or cardiac hospital admissions, 30 million respiratory medication use days and several hundred million restricted activity days each year.

Air pollution particularly affects vulnerable groups such as infants, children, the elderly and those suffering from asthma, allergies and other respiratory diseases. Whichever way you look at this problem, the benefits of clean air far outweigh the costs.

Over the last year or so, the Commission has been flooded by requests from member states for exemptions from meeting the air quality standards. It is obvious that many member states have plainly failed to take the necessary measures in time, and now they find themselves in a critical situation where they are at risk of being brought before the European Court of Justice.

At the same time as EU countries struggle to avoid cleaning up the air in line with binding legislation they themselves have agreed and sign up to, on the other side of the Atlantic work is ongoing to strengthen air quality standards.

Another interesting contrast is the fact that in setting primary ambient air quality standards in the United States, the responsibility under the law is to establish standards that protect public health, regardless of the costs of implementing a new standard. The US Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency, for each criteria pollutant, to set a standard that protects public health with “an adequate margin of safety.” Even if in practice this may not eventually happen, the fundamental principle is good, and certainly something for other countries to emulate.

In contrast to most international environmental treaties, the EU does actually have the tools needed for strict enforcement. Financial penalties can be imposed either as a periodic (e.g. daily) penalty payment or as a lump sum. Considering the serious and widespread damage to health and the environment caused by excessive air pollution, compliance with air quality legislation is essential, and strict enforcement action by the Commission must be a top priority. We do have the right to breathe clean air.

Christer Ågren

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