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MEPs stand up for citizens’ health in air quality vote, says HEAL

Brussels, 28 October 2015 – The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) says today’s vote on air quality shows the European Parliament has stood up to strong lobbying from agro-business to protect people’s health.

In the plenary vote of the EU National Emissions Ceilings Directive (NEC) (1), Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted in favour of legally binding targets set for 2025 - although mercury is not included as recommended by the Parliament’s environment committee in July.

“We are happy that MEPs have put citizens’ interests and wishes first and not given in to vested interests, particularly to pressure from farmers and agribusiness,” says Anne Stauffer, HEAL Deputy Director, “even though we would like to have seen a higher ambition”.

“The Commission’s proposal was aimed at avoiding a modest proportion of the estimated 400,000 premature deaths taking place each year as a result to exposure to polluted air within the European Union. The vote shows that MEPs have accepted that this was necessary and put health before vested interests. We hope that Member States will take the lead from the MEPs in their discussion of NEC in the Environment Council in December.”

The World Health Organization defines air pollution as one of the main avoidable causes of disease and death globally (2). In the EU, it is responsible for reducing life expectancy by an average of almost nine months. (3) Health costs from air pollution in the EU are estimated at 330 – 940 billion EUR a year. (4)

Experts say that air quality in much of Europe is “poor” (5) contributing significantly to asthma, COPD, heart disease, lung and other cancers, and brain damage in children.

In the latest EU opinion survey, Europeans say they want cleaner air and believe that it is the EU that should take action. Over half of all Europeans (56%) said they thought air quality has deteriorated over the past 10 years and more than half (51%) thought EU air quality standards should be strengthened. (6)

The new NEC will be the most important piece of legislation for promoting clean air in Europe for several years to come. It sets limits for emissions of major air pollutants, including particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, ammonia and methane.

Ammonia and methane

The European Parliament accepted the Commission’s proposal to set limits on ammonia and, for the first time, methane. Within the EU, over 90% of all ammonia emissions and approximately 50% of methane emissions are from agricultural sources. In recent years, only small emission reductions have been achieved despite the cost-effective technical solutions that are available.

Both ammonia and methane are harmful to health as ammonia interacts in the atmosphere to form harmful particulate matter and methane is an important contributor to ground-level ozone.

Research in the US suggests that the health costs of ammonia emissions associated with agriculture are at least tens of billions each year. In Europe, the proposed emission controls by agriculture are estimated at about €2·5 billion per year, a small percentage of the total subsidies of about €60 billion from the European Commission to the agricultural sector through the Common Agricultural Policy. (7)

Methane is an important concern because higher ozone levels mean more asthma. “Research shows that ozone exposure can reduce lung function, trigger exacerbations of asthma, and increase rates of hospitalization for asthma. In addition, some studies suggest that long-term exposure to ozone actually contributes to the development of new cases of asthma (8),” Ms Stauffer says.

Disappointment over mercury target

When the Commission’s proposal was reviewed by the Environment Committee in July 2015, it recommended binding targets and the addition of mercury to the list of pollutants included. This reflected growing concerns from within the scientific community in relation to mercury exposure. (9) The cap on mercury could have reduced emissions by half, with significant health improvements.

“We deeply regret that MEPs today did not support the introduction of emission caps for mercury, which would have particularly benefitted our children and future generations. There is broad scientific consensus that mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal that is causing IQ losses in the European population,” Ms Stauffer says.

Methylmercury (MeHg), formed in the environment from inorganic mercury, is a neurotoxicant. Harm to the brain development in babies before they are born is the greatest health risk. Findings from the EU biomonitoring study suggested that one in three babies born in European countries each year are affected by unsafe maternal mercury levels. In 2013, experts estimated the benefits of controlling MeHg pollution at 600,000 IQ per year, which was valued at between €8,000 and €9,000 million per year for the whole of the EU. (10)


Anne Stauffer, Deputy Director, HEAL, Mobile: +49 173 10 70 712, +32 473 711092, Email:

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

Notes to journalists


The NEC is the only legislative instrument tackling cross-border air pollution in the European Union. It defines the implementation of the EU’s international commitments under the UN Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

2. World Health Assembly resolution on the health impact of air pollution, 2015,

3. Statement of ISEE and ISEE Europe Chapter

4. Open Letter from HEAL and others to MEPs, 23 October 2015,

5. Bert Brunekreef, who has lead major EU research projects on air quality and is chairman of the European Respiratory Society, says that air quality is “poor” in much of Europe and that the Air Quality Guidelines set by the World Health Organisation are exceeded almost everywhere in Europe. See Air Quality at a Crossroads,

6. Flash Eurobarometer 360, 2013, Attitudes of Europeans towards air quality

7. Comment: Reducing the health effect of particles from agriculture, The Lancet, 7 October 2015,

8. Physicians for Social Responsibility In the EU and globally, efforts to reduce the release of mercury are ongoing (UN Minamata Convention). The EU has rules on limiting mercury emissions from waste incineration and co-incineration but none to tackle releases from coal power plants, which are the main source of mercury emissions.

9. Environmental Health Journal, 2013, Economic benefits of methylmercury exposure control in Europe

Originally posted on 29 October 2015

About HEAL

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is a leading European not-for-profit organisation addressing how the environment affects health in the European Union (EU). We demonstrate how policy changes can help protect health and enhance people’s quality of life. 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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