Brussels, 2 December 1998
Commission proposes ambient air quality limit values for benzene and carbon monoxide
The European Commission has adopted a Proposal for a Directive which will for the first time set European Union (EU) limit values for benzene and carbon monoxide in the air we breathe. The proposal's major goals are to provide a high level of protection for public health across the EU and to improve quality of life for European citizens, especially in crowded towns and cities. Main elements of the proposal are a limit value for benzene of 5 µg/m3, to be met on 1 January 2010, and for carbon monoxide a limit value of 10 mg/m3, to be met on 1 January 2005. To meet these targets emissions of benzene the first carcinogen for which the Commission has proposed an air quality limit value - must drop by up to 70% in addition to the reductions already planned. Peak levels of CO must drop by up to a third. This proposal is just one part of an action programme established by the Directive on Ambient Air Quality Assessment and Management (96/62/EC). A previous proposal, on new limit values for sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter and lead, will be finally adopted early next year. Proposals for tackling other pollutants, including other carcinogens, will follow.
Following adoption of the proposal Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard said: "This proposal is yet another important step forward in the programme of cleaning up Europe's air. At the moment we have no EU air quality standards for benzene and carbon monoxide. This proposal will set ambitious standards. It will provide a high level of protection for human health. And it will also make sure that the public is able to see what is being done to meet them and how well it is working. The proposed standard for benzene is particularly significant. This is the first time the Commission has proposed an air quality limit value for a carcinogen. The Commission has based its approach on the precautionary principle and has proposed a limit value, which is ambitious, but which we also believe can be reached. It will take some effort. But that will mean less pollution, especially from traffic in our busy cities, making them a pleasanter and a healthier place to be."
What Are the Essential Elements in the Commissions Proposal?
The proposal sets out for the first time EU air quality standards for carbon monoxide and benzene, 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.
In areas/zones where the current air quality is significantly worse than the new standards which are proposed, Member States will be required to develop and to implement action plans to reduce emissions and to ensure that the standards will be met by the required date. These action plans will be made available to the public.
In order to ensure that the standards are met, air quality must be regularly and systematically monitored. The proposal 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 proposal sets out some basic rules on how and when authorities should provide information on air pollution. They will provide easy access to up-to-date information on pollution levels, for example by setting up web sites or special telephone lines or sending bulletins to the media. And the action plans which they develop to meet limit values will be available to the public.
The Impact of the Commission's Proposals
The most important source of these pollutants is road traffic, though there are also industrial sources of both. Emissions from most sectors are already falling.
New vehicle and fuel standards agreed as a result of the Auto-oil proposals, and other existing legislation on fuel transport and industrial emissions will go a long way towards meeting these standards. Emissions of benzene should fall by some 60% by 2010 and emissions of CO by 1990. But Member States will still have to take action to deal with hotspots especially in busy streets.
It is up to Member States to decide what action to take. But options include using alternative fuels, or road pricing or other means of reducing traffic. Traffic management measures would of course have many other important benefits, such as reducing noise and congestion and further reducing emissions of other important pollutants, such as particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.
Meeting the benzene limit value throughout the European Union is estimated to mean reducing emissions by around 70% by the year 2010, in addition to what is already expected.
Meeting the carbon monoxide (CO) limit value is estimated to need an additional reduction peak levels of up to a third by 2005.
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 EU. 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. Sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter and lead were the first pollutants to be dealt with. The Council of Ministers reached Common Position on that proposal in September this year. Carbon monoxide and benzene were among the next priorities.
What are the effects of benzene and carbon monoxide on human health?
Benzene is a carcinogen. It increases the risk of leukaemia (especially an adult form of the disease known as acute myeloid leukaemia).
Carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood. Indoors it is the cause of deaths from faulty heaters. Outdoor levels are much lower but it can increase the risk of heart attacks for people with coronary heart disease and can affect foetal development. Effects on less sensitive people include impaired co-ordination, tracking, driving ability, vigilance and cognitive performance, headache and nausea.
Do benzene and carbon monoxide affect the environment as well?
Not directly. CO is a precursor of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) and of ground level ozone, but its contribution to the problems of global warming and summer smog is relatively low.
How do you develop a limit value for a carcinogen?
It is not possible to identify a threshold for effects. So the precautionary principle must be applied and concentrations should be kept as low as possible. In accordance with this principle the Commission decided to act now, and come back again later to see if more should be done. It looked for a level that is ambitious and provides a high level of protection but which can be achieved though not without effort. The Commission will return to the question of benzene again in 2004. It will report on the implementation of this Directive as part of a more general review of air quality standards and make any further proposals at that time.
Is any special allowance made for areas where benzene levels are very high?
These would be exactly the areas where action is most needed. High concentrations should be reduced as quickly as possible. But we do have to be realistic. We have very few data on benzene in some parts of the EU. There may be places where current levels are much higher than the average and where the limit value could perhaps not be met by 2010 without serious disruption. So the proposal does allow the possibility of agreeing an extension in such areas, provided it is shown that there would be severe socio-economic problems without it. This is subject to approval from the Commission.
But Member States will still have to make action plans and get to work to tackle benzene in any such areas right from the start. The proposal will make sure that the worst areas get the attention they need.
Table 1 : Limit value for benzene
Table 2 : Limit value for carbon monoxide