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HEAL welcomes health objective in EU air quality strategy but regrets much else

Update 9 January 2014 - NGO Assessment of the European Year of Air

Brussels, 19 December 2013 – The European Commission’s Communication on future air quality strategy, “A clean air programme for Europe”, (1) gives a central place to health but no clear roadmap for achieving it.

Launched yesterday, it sets a long-term EU objective of not exceeding World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines but offers no timetable for adjusting the law which matters most for health.

“What is particularly worrying is that the Communication’s focus is on achieving compliance with existing air quality standards by 2020 rather than setting a date for reopening discussion on the Ambient Air Quality Directive,” says Genon K. Jensen, Executive Director, Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). (2)

Although the National Emission Ceilings Directive will be revised as part of the new package, it is the Ambient Air Quality Directive that remains a key policy if future concentrations are to be brought below the WHO guideline values everywhere.

The new package will leave very serious health damage from air pollution for many years to come. The Commission’s impact assessment (3) estimates that over 259,000 premature deaths would still occur in 2030 after implementation of the Commission’s latest draft laws.

However, HEAL believes both the support shown for the Communication from Health Commissioner Tonio Borg (4) and the strong focus on human health are important. They make clear that the Commission is listening more closely to growing health experts and public concerns about air pollution levels in Europe.

Growing disquiet about poor air quality in Europe is based on firm scientific evidence of harm to health. This month, results of the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects (ESCAPE) study were published in the Lancet medical journal. The findings, which pool data from more than 360,000 residents of large cities in 13 European countries, showed a 7% rise in the number of deaths with each increase of 5 micrograms/m3 in fine particulate air pollution. (5)

Europeans living in towns are worst affected. This year’s assessment of EU air quality by the European Environment Agency (6) showed that more than 90% of European city-dwellers are still exposed to concentrations of particulates well above the levels recommended by the WHO. The EEA also confirmed that 400,000 Europeans die prematurely from the effects of air pollution every year - more than 10 times the deaths from traffic accidents.

Public opinion surveys show a high level of concern. At the beginning of 2013, an EU survey revealed how Europeans rate the seriousness of air-related problems. Some 87% consider respiratory disease, asthma and allergy a serious problem in their country and 92% say they consider cardiovascular disease to be serious. (7)

The European Parliament recognised the important health burden associated with air pollution as a public priority by highlighting the need for clean air in the 7th Environmental Action Plan. In the months since the opinion survey was completed, WHO’s cancer agency, IARC, has officially classified air pollution as a carcinogenic substance adding another significant disease group to those already recognised as caused by exposure to polluted air. IARC compared the effect of air pollution to that of secondhand tobacco smoke. (8)

Cost-benefit analyses on improvements in air quality have consistently shown overwhelming benefits for society. Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik told the press conference to launch the new strategy that the benefits of the Commission’s proposal outweigh the costs by ten to one - even on conservative estimates. (9) “While Member States complain about the difficulties of delivering better standards on air quality, Europeans are increasingly vocal about wanting the benefits in terms of cleaner air and better health,” Ms Jensen adds. “The Commission proposal could have delivered more in the interest of the health of citizens.”



1. Communication, 18 December 2013. Extract: The long-term EU objective for air pollution implies no exceedence of the World Health Organisation guideline levels for human health (which may also develop over time) and no exceedence of the critical loads and levels which mark the limits of ecosystem tolerance. The new strategy pursues two priorities in parallel: to achieve full compliance with existing legislation by 2020 at the latest, and to set a pathway for the EU to meet the long-term objective.

2. The Communication also says: “The resulting reductions in background concentrations will in due course enable us to revise ambient concentration standards towards the WHO guidelines.”

3. See European Commission Staff Working Document, SWD(2013)531, Table A7.2, page 186 for premature deaths from PM2.5 and from ozone for a slightly more ambitious target (6C scenario) for 2030.

4. Commission Proposal Press Release:

5. Lancet, 9 December 2013

6. European Environment Agency (2013): Air quality in Europe – 2013 report.

7. Flash Eurobarometer 360, “Attitudes of Europeans towards air quality”, January 2013

8. IARC: Outdoor air pollution a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths, Press release, 17 October 2013

9. Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik response to a journalist’s question at press conference to launch the Communication, 18 December 2013. _


Génon K. Jensen, Executive Director, Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL), E-mail: Website: Tel: + 32 495 80 87 32

Diana Smith, HEAL Communications and Media Adviser,, mobile: +33 6 33 04 2943

Last updated on 6 February 2014

About HEAL

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is the leading not-for-profit organisation addressing how the environment affects human health in the European Union (EU) and beyond. HEAL works to shape laws and policies that promote planetary and human health and protect those most affected by pollution, and raise awareness on the benefits of environmental action for health. Read more »


HEAL has over 70 member organisations, representing health professionals, not-for-profit health insurers, doctors, nurses, cancer and asthma groups, citizens, women’s groups, youth groups, environmental NGOs, scientists and public health institutes. Members include international and Europe-wide organisations, as well as national and local groups. Read more »

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