Newsletter 229 - Air pollution and health

Health-EU Newsletter 229 – Focus

Medical community urged to talk about links between air pollution and health

Veronica Manfredi, Director of the European Commission’s Quality of Life Directorate at the Directorate General Environment, talks about EU measures to reduce air pollution and its impact on health, an issue in the global spotlight.

How big of a problem is air pollution in the EU? Is this mainly a problem elsewhere?

In India, doctors are finding teenagers in New Delhi with lungs as black and damaged as those of 70-year-olds’ back in the 1980s. Yes, that is in India and we are fortunate in the EU to have legislation that sets legal air pollution limits, but despite this, more than 130 EU cities do not meet all of these standards and in some cases, during peak times air pollution in urban areas can reach the same levels as in New Delhi.

Air pollution is a global problem. WHO estimates point to more than 4.2 million premature deaths globally due to outdoor air pollution each year; and for Europe, the European Environment Agency estimates this number to be in excess of 400.000 premature deaths each year – especially due to particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone.

What has the EU done so far to address air pollution?

We have legislation that sets common air quality targets, commits to emission limits at national level, and sets standards for key pollution sources. And we provide funding to support air quality measures. Under the European Structural and Investment Funds, for example, 1.8 billion Euro was allocated for this for the 2014-2020 period. Add to this other funding that can indirectly benefit air quality, like the 45 billion Euro investment in the low carbon economy.

Funding is an incentive – it’s the proverbial carrot, but we also have a stick. We can and do take legal action to enforce EU legislation, and infringement cases may end up at the European Court of Justice. We are currently very concerned about 30 cases in 20 Member States where the legal limits for particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide or sulphur dioxide are exceeded persistently.

It is important to remember, however, that legal action is a merely a means to achieve compliance – there are others. We also facilitate the sharing of best practices: for example, we set up or are active in several relevant networks and organise Clean Air Dialogues and Environmental Implementation Review Dialogues with Member States.

What further measures could be taken?

We need to look at reducing emissions further across all economic sectors, be it industry, transport, residential heating and agriculture. For the latter, we need to reduce the use of ammonia and nitrates in fertilisers – and thus reduce both air and water pollution.

It is high time we meet EU air quality standards throughout the European Union. And we need to improve outdoor air quality significantly beyond this, moving closer to WHO recommended levels.

The situation seems dire. Is there any good news?

Yes, there is good news: we know that Clean Air policy works! Thanks to joint efforts by the EU and the national, regional and local authorities, air pollution has decreased in the EU over the last decades. Emissions of air pollutants decreased significantly too, even during a period of continued strong economic growth. We are on the right track but still have some way to go. We aim to cut air pollutant emissions by half by 2030 with the national reduction commitments enshrined in EU law, and therefore to also reduce its health impacts by half compared to 2005.

Reaching that goal requires taking urgent action now. It requires Member States adopting ambitious plans and fully implementing them, and it requires the full support and engagement of the medical community.