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Brussels, 5 May 2009

Air quality: Commission welcomes EP vote to cut harmful vapour emissions from service stations

The European Commission welcomes today's European Parliament vote approving the first reading agreement with the Council on legislation to cut harmful vapour emissions from fuel stations. The new directive will ensure that harmful petrol vapour which escapes during the refuelling of cars at service stations is captured and recycled. 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 directive will improve the protection of European citizens' health by contributing to the attainment of agreed EU air quality standards for two harmful pollutants, ground level ozone and benzene. The rapid agreement reached by Parliament and Council on the basis of the Commission's proposal from last December underlines the EU's continuing commitment to tackling air pollution at source."

What the legislation requires

The 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 if their throughput is above 100 cubic metres per year (corresponding to about six cars filling up each day). The largest existing stations, with a throughput greater than 3000 cubic metres per year, will also have to implement Stage II PVR, by 2018 at the latest. In addition, service stations will have to inform the public about the operation of Stage II equipment which should help ensure its correct operation in practice.

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

How Stage II PVR works

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.

Harmful 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 pollution, 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 Council, having reached agreement with the European Parliament at first reading, will now formally adopt the directive. The Member States will then transpose the legislation into national law.

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