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Table 2: Limit values for nitrogen dioxide and nitric oxide

ip/97/853

Brussels, 8 October 1997

Commission proposes new air quality limit values

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 release.

Action Plans

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.

Assessment Procedures

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).

Information

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 general.

The Impact of the Commission's Proposals

The Impact on Emissions

Sulphur dioxide

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 will apply.

Nitrogen dioxide

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.

Particulate matter

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.

Lead

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.

BACKGROUND

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 in children.

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.

Table 1: Limit values for sulphur dioxide

Averaging period

Limit valueDate by which limit value is to be met
1. hourly limit value for the protection of human health1 hour350µgm-3 not to be exceeded more than 24 times per calendar year
Designed to protect against exceedances of the WHO 1996 10 minute guideline to protect health
1 January 2005
2. daily limit value for the protection of human health24 hours125µgm-3 not to be exceeded more than 3 times per calendar year1 January 2005
3. limit value for the protection of ecosystemscalendar year and winter (1 October to 31 March)20µgm-3Two years from entry into force of the Directive

Averaging period

Limit valueDate by which limit value is to be met
1. hourly limit value for the protection of human health1 hour200µgm-3 NO2 not to be exceeded more than 8 times per calendar year1 January 2010
2. annual limit value for the protection of human healthcalendar year40µgm-3 NO21 January 2010
3. annual limit value for the protection of vegetationcalendar year30µgm-3 NO + NO2two years from entry into force of the Directive

Table 3: Limit values for PM10

  • Averaging period
Limit valueDate by which limit value is to be met
Stage 1
1. 24 hour limit value for the protection of human health24 hours50µgm-3 PM10 not to be exceeded more than 25 times per year1 January 2005
2. annual limit value for the protection of human healthcalendar year30µgm-3 PM101 January 2005
Stage 2
1. 24 hour limit value for the protection of human health24 hours50µgm-3 PM10 not to be exceeded more than 7 times per year1 January 2010
2. annual limit value for the protection of human healthcalendar year20µgm-3 PM101 January 2010

Table 4: Limit value for lead

Averaging period

Limit valueDate by which limit value is to be met
1. annual limit value for the protection of human healthcalendar year0.5µgm-31 January 2005

Table 5: WHO 1996 Air Quality Guidelines for Europe

Averaging period

Concentration (g/m3)
sulphur dioxide: health10 minutes500
24 hours125
one year50
sulphur dioxide: ecotoxic effectsannual and winter mean10 - 30 depending on type of vegetation
nitrogen dioxide: health1 hour200
one year40
nitrogen dioxide and nitric oxide: ecotoxic effectsone year30
PM1024 hoursdose/response
one yeardose/response
Leadone year0.5

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