DN: IP/97/853 Date: 1997-10-08
The European Commission today adopted a proposal for a Directive
setting new ambient air quality limit values for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen
dioxide, particulate matter and lead. The proposal is the first of a series to
be brought forward under the Directive on Ambient Air Quality Assessment and
Management (96/62/EC). Its major goals are to provide a high level of protection
for public health throughout the European Union, and to set for the first time
ambient air quality limit values designed to protect the environment. The new
limit values are based on the revised Air Quality Guidelines for Europe adopted
by the World Health Organisation in 1996. Main elements of the proposal are
health-based limit values for sulphur dioxide, lead and particulate matter to be
met by 2005; health-based limit values for nitrogen dioxide and a tighter set of
limit values for particulate matter to be met by 2010; limit values to protect
the rural environment against the effects of sulphur dioxide and oxides of
nitrogen; details of how levels of the pollutants should be assessed throughout
the European Union; and a requirement that up to date information on all four
pollutants should be easily available to the public. To meet these targets
emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide must be reduced by nearly 10%
throughout the Union in addition to the reductions already expected by 2010. For
particulate matter it is estimated that emissions in cities will need to be
reduced by some 50% over present levels. Today's proposal is only the start. In
the course of 1998 and 1999, the Commission will bring forward further proposals
for air quality standards for carbon monoxide, benzene and tropospheric ozone,
as well as proposals dealing with a series of heavy metals and polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Following the adoption of the proposal Environment Commissioner Ritt
Bjerregaard said: Air quality in the Union has improved over the last ten
years. But we continue to have pollution episodes with a significant risk to
human health. Only last week Environment Minister Dominique Voynet in France had
to introduce tough measures to reduce traffic in order to tackle severe
pollution in Paris. The Air Quality Framework Directive adopted by the Council
of Ministers last year provides the foundation for ensuring that human health
and the environment are protected across the Union by the most cost-effective
means. Today's proposal builds on that. It will bring enormous benefits in terms
of improved public health. Thousands of deaths associated with air pollution
will be avoided, hospital emergency admissions will be reduced, the population
in general, and vulnerable citizens in particular will have a lower level of
respiratory illnesses, and the quality of life for many will be improved. To
achieve our objectives will require a partnership between the EU institutions,
national governments, local and regional authorities, industry and the citizens.
Since we all, in one way or another, contribute to problems of air pollution we
must all be part of finding a solution."
What Are the Essential Elements in the Commissions Proposal?
New Air Quality Standards.
For each of the four pollutants, the proposal sets out new air quality
standards as well as the date by which these air quality standards must be
achieved. A summary of the air quality standards is attached to this press
In areas/zones where the current air quality is significantly worse than the
new standards which are proposed, Member States will be required to elaborate
and to implement action plans to reduce emissions and to ensure that the
standards will be met by the required date.
In order to ensure that the standards are respected air quality must be
monitored on a regular and systematic basis. The directive requires standard
methods to be used for measuring pollution and also sets down minimum
requirements concerning the design of the air quality monitoring networks (
number and location of measuring stations etc).
Citizens should have access to information concerning air quality. The
directive sets out some basic rules concerning how and when the authorities
should provide information on pollution episodes and on air pollution in
The Impact of the Commission's Proposals
The Impact on Emissions
Meeting the health-based limit values throughout the European Union is
estimated to mean reducing emissions by of around 10% beyond what is already
expected by the year 2010. If the Commission's proposal on the sulphur content
of liquid fuels which was adopted in March this year is adopted by the Council
this will reduce SO2 emissions by up to one million tonnes per annum and will
mean that it should in fact be possible to meet the proposed health based limit
values already by 2005. Indications are that the limit value for protecting
against ecotoxic effects is already widely met in the rural situations where it
It has been estimated that meeting the health-based limit values for NO2 in
all urban centres in the Union will mean reducing emissions by nearly 10% in
addition to the reductions already expected by 2010. As in the case of SO2,
indications are that the limit value for protecting against ecotoxic effects is
already widely met in the rural situations where it will apply.
The proposed limit values for particulate matter require particles to be
measured as PM10 - particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter. Like
all measures of ambient particles, PM10 is a complex mixture, emitted by many
sources. Combustion sources such as traffic, power plants and domestic heating
are important emitters of particles. But particles are also formed in the
atmosphere from emissions of other pollutants, such as SO2 , NO2 and ammonia.
Emissions from all these sources and others will have to be reduced if the limit
value is to be met. It is estimated that emissions in cities will need to be
reduced by some 50% over present levels if the limit values proposed for 2010
are to be met throughout the Union.
How is it possible to set limit values for particulate matter when there are
no thresholds for effects?
Although it is not possible on current evidence to determine clear
thresholds below which they would be no effects on health, expert advice is that
it is possible to set goals which would provide a high degree of protection for
public health. And, given the relatively high concentrations of particles in
some parts of the Union today and the number of different sources that
contribute to those concentrations it is essential to have targets for the
challenging task of bringing them down.
Because of the decline in the use of leaded petrol, concentrations of lead
in air are already below the proposed limit value in most of the European Union.
They will decline still further as leaded petrol is phased out. Potential
problems will remain only around some industrial plants, mainly non-ferrous
metal smelters. The emissions reductions needed vary from plant to plant.
In September 1996 the Council adopted the Directive on Ambient Air Quality
Assessment and Management (96/62/EC). This provides a new framework for setting
ambient air quality standards and for ensuring that they are met throughout the
European Union. The Directive requires the Commission to develop proposals for
ambient air quality limit values for a number of pollutants with the aim of
protecting public health and the environment. It identifies as the first
priority revision of existing limit values for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen
dioxide, particulate matter and lead in the light of the most recent evidence
about their effects on health and the environment. The proposal adopted today
is the Commission's response to that obligation.
What are the effects of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate
matter and lead on human health?
Sulphur dioxide's main effect is on respiratory function. High
concentrations can affect breathing very quickly. Asthmatics are especially
sensitive. A recent study on pollution in European cities, financed by the
Commission, also showed that when SO2 levels increase, daily hospital
admissions and daily mortality rates are also higher.
Nitrogen dioxide has short-term effects on the respiratory system.
Long-term exposure is associated with increased rates of respiratory infection
Particulate matter: Several recent studies on particulate matter, including
a study financed by the Commission, have found that there are more asthma
attacks, more hospital admissions (especially for respiratory problems) and
higher death rates from respiratory and cardiac diseases on days when levels of
particles are high. The extent of the effect of these short-term changes in
particle levels on life-expectancy in particular is hard to interpret. But the
results taken together show clearly the large potential impact of particulate
matter on public health. Long-term studies suggest that chronic exposure to
particles can shorten lifespan significantly.
Lead: The most important effects of ambient lead on health are reduced IQ in
children and an increase in neonatal mortality owing to maternal exposure.
What are the effects of these pollutants on the environment?
Sulphur dioxide in the air can both cause direct damage to growing plants.
Nitrogen dioxide acts together with nitric oxide to damage vegetation. These
are also some of the main pollutants responsible for acidification. Lead
deposited on the ground accumulates in the soil. It can directly damage soil
micro-organisms and plant growth and enters the food chain of animals.
Sulphur dioxide is the most important pollutant in determining the rate of
deterioration of a number of materials, including stonework. NO2 and particles
can also damage materials. The old buildings and monuments which form a vital
part of Europe's cultural heritage are particularly vulnerable.