Editorial: Air pollution exposure will remain unacceptably high

Air pollution is the leading environmental risk factor affecting public health in Europe. The current EU annual PM₂.₅ ambient air quality standard is relatively lax, and notably higher than similar economies such as Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, South Africa and the USA. The European Union is also one of the few economically prosperous regions that lack an air quality standard for short-term exposure to PM₂.₅. The European Commission has presented its Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD) proposal as part of the Zero Pollution package and in light of the new WHO Air Quality Guidelines.

The new proposal presents annual limit values for PM₂.₅ and NO₂ that are stricter than in the current directive and introduces new daily limit values for PM₂.₅ and NO₂. However, these proposed new limit values are still substantially higher than those recommended by the WHO to provide comprehensive protection from serious health effects for the European population. Instead of aligning with WHO Air Quality Guidelines, the new proposal chose the Interim Target 4 values (twice as high for PM₂.₅ and NO₂) meant for countries with high pollution levels. According to the WHO Air Quality Guideline assessment, Europe and the Americas were the regions that would benefit the least from settling for Interim Targets, compared to other regions of the world. For ozone, instead of a limit value, the proposal still only foresees a target value. Moreover, the proposed AAQD contains loopholes that would make it possible to postpone compliance with the limit values well beyond 2035, depriving people of the ability to obtain legal protection for their right to breathe clean and healthy air. As a result, the burden of disease from air pollution exposure in Europe will remain unacceptably high for an extended period of time. The cost of inaction will lead to new cases of cardiovascular and respiratory disease (including childhood asthma), cancer, mental health disorders, dementia, diabetes and adverse birth outcomes year after year. This will not only mean increased suffering for the individuals and their loved ones, but also put further strain on our already overburdened healthcare systems. Hundreds of thousands of people each year will pay the ultimate price of a premature death for this inaction. Given the seriousness and the urgency of this health problem, we need greater efforts to reduce air pollution effects and a more ambitious path to achieve full alignment with WHO Air Quality Guidelines everywhere in Europe.

The attainability of meeting limit values will depend on political will at national, regional and local levels to introduce mitigation measures. It will also depend on pressure for the right to breathe clean air from citizens and organizations to ensure it remains on the agenda. We urge everyone to keep the health of a loved one in mind when taking action. Lastly, we must remember that the goal of being able to breathe, without risking our health, everywhere in Europe, is worth fighting for and that it can come with huge benefits. With careful consideration of the solutions, we might also end up with cities where children can bike to school, ecosystems no longer suffer from acidification and eutrophication, and have a better chance of reaching climate goals.  

Ebba Malmqvist

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