Photo: / James Alby CC BY-ND

Editorial: Everyone's right to clean air

Evidence of the health hazards posed by air pollutants is clear and unambiguous. Air pollution particularly affects vulnerable groups such as infants, children, the elderly and those suffering from asthma, allergies and other respiratory diseases.

Despite action taken to cut air pollutant emissions, almost all city dwellers continue to be exposed to pollutants at levels deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2014, around nine out of ten urban citizens in the EU were exposed to levels of fine particles and ozone above the WHO guideline values.

While recent data shows that air quality in the EU is slowly getting better, excessive concentrations of air pollutants continue to have significant health impacts, with fine particles (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3) causing the greatest harm.

Last year, the European Environment Agency (EEA) attributed 399,000 annual premature deaths to PM2.5 exposure and 75,000 and 13,600 premature deaths to nitrogen dioxide and ozone exposure, respectively, for the year 2014.

On top of these scarily high numbers of premature deaths, air pollution is also the cause of allergies and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, which result in extra medication and hospitalisations as well as millions of lost working days.

Moreover, excess fall-out of acidifying and eutrophying air pollutants damages nature and biodiversity. Agricultural crops, forest trees and even man-made materials, including monuments and buildings of high cultural value, are all suffering.

In 2008, the EU adopted a new directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe (2008/50/EC), including a set of limit values for a number of air pollutants (many of these limit values had actually been set earlier, in the preceding 1999 directive).

So what is the result? According to the latest EEA air quality data, in 2016:

  • 19 EU countries were breaching the annual limit value for nitrogen dioxide (NO2);
  • 7 EU countries were breaching the annual limit values for fine particles (for either PM10 or for PM2.5 or for both these pollutants);
  • 14 EU countries were breaching the daily limit value for PM10 more than 35 times per year – which is the maximum allowed under EU law.

The statistics show that the air quality standards that are there to protect people’s health – most of which were agreed by EU countries nearly 20 years ago – are still frequently being exceeded. How can this be, when the EU clearly has the tools needed for strict enforcement?

As reported in the last issue of Acid News, the Commission is currently pursuing infringement actions for excessive levels of PM10 against 16 member states and legal action has also been initiated on NO2, so far involving 12 member states.

Unfortunately, the EU legal process in these matters is painstakingly slow. However, when the process eventually arrives at a judgement, significant financial penalties can be imposed.

Considering the serious and widespread damage to health and the environment caused by excessive air pollution, compliance with air quality legislation is essential. Strict and rapid enforcement action by the Commission must therefore be a top priority.

We all have the right to breathe clean air. And whichever way you look at this problem, the benefits of clean air far outweigh the costs of emission control.

Christer Ågren



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