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Brussels, 4 December 2008

Air quality: Commission proposes legislation to limit harmful vapour emissions from service stations

The Commission today proposed legislation to ensure that harmful petrol vapour which escapes during the refuelling of cars at service stations is captured and recycled. Petrol pumps in many service stations across the EU will need to be fitted with equipment that can recover 85% or more of this vapour. Petrol vapour contains benzene, which is known to cause cancer, and contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone ('smog'), one of the air pollutants most damaging to human health and the environment.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “This proposal will improve the health of European citizens. It will contribute to raise air quality standards by limiting the emission of two harmful pollutants, ground level ozone and benzene."

What the legislation will mean

The proposed directive will require so-called Stage II petrol vapour recovery (PVR) technologies to be fitted to petrol pumps at all service stations with an annual petrol throughput greater than 500 cubic metres per year when they are newly constructed or substantially refurbished. All service stations situated underneath residential accommodation will also need to install this equipment irrespective of their size. The largest existing stations, with a throughput greater than 3000 cubic metres per year, will also have to implement Stage II PVR, by 2020 at the latest.

Stage II PVR equipment is already installed in petrol stations in about half the Member States. The proposed directive will extend this practice to the whole of the EU, cutting emissions further.

How does Stage II PVR work?

Inside a car's petrol tank, petrol vapour exists above the liquid petrol. When the car is refuelled this vapour is displaced and escapes to the atmosphere. Stage II PVR captures this escaping vapour. This is done by creating a vacuum to suck back the vapour through the dispensing hose and nozzle, either to the station's underground storage tank or directly back to the fuel pump. This latter technology is newer and does not require any modification of the underground pipe work of the service station.

Damaging effects of benzene and ozone

Petrol vapour contains a mix of hydrocarbons including benzene which is a human carcinogen with no known safe threshold. An air quality limit value for benzene will enter into force in the EU in 2010.

Hydrocarbons also react in the atmosphere to make ground-level ozone, which can be transported over hundreds of kilometres in the air. In contrast to the ozone layer in the stratosphere, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation, ozone at ground level is harmful both to human health and ecosystems. Human exposure to ozone has effects ranging from irritation of the respiratory system to inflammation of the lungs and, in acute cases affecting the most vulnerable people, even death. No safe level of exposure to ozone has yet been determined. Regarding the environment, ozone damage is the most serious regional air pollution problem affecting forests, vegetation and agricultural crops in Europe.

Action is needed by all Member States to tackle ozone pollution which currently exceeds Community targets for health widely across the EU. Air pollution in the EU, in particular from fine particulate matter but to a lesser degree also from ground-level ozone, is estimated to cause the premature death of almost 370,000 citizens every year and reduces average life expectancy by nine months.

Next steps

The proposal now goes to the Council and European Parliament for their consideration under the co-decision procedure.

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