Newly found health effects of air pollution call for stronger EU air policies

Newly found health effects of air pollution call for stronger EU air policies


Long-term exposure to fine particles (PM2.5) can trigger atherosclerosis, adverse birth outcomes and childhood respiratory diseases, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) review releasedat 31 January 2013.

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REVIHAAP – the “Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution” – also suggests a possible link with neurodevelopment, cognitive function and diabetes, and strengthens the causal link between PM2.5 and cardiovascular and respiratory deaths. The research was carried out at the request of the European Commission in the framework of the 2013 review of the European Union’s air policy.

EU Commissioner for Environment Janez PotoÄŤnik said: “EU air policy must be based on the latest science. That is why I asked the WHO to undertake this research. The links it has found between air pollution and human health reinforce the case for scaling up our policy: it will be a key input to the 2013 air quality policy review”.

“Only a few years ago in the absence of clear evidence, air pollution standards and regulations were not sufficiently targeting human health”, said Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “Years of WHO-coordinated research have provided the first quantitative estimates of the burden of disease from particulate matter and have now established links between air pollutants and health outcomes. We are confident that this new knowledge will ultimately lead to more stringent air pollution control policies to protect the health of European citizens”.

Over 80 % of Europeans are exposed to particulate matter (PM) levels above the 2005 WHO Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs). This on average deprives each citizen of 8.6 months of life. Recent studies show associations between PM2.5 and mortality at levels below the current AQGs fixed at 10 µg/m3 annually and so the WHO review recommends a revision of the AQGs for PM by 2015. The report also recommends further modifications to EU law, as the current limit value for PM2.5 in the EU's Ambient Air Quality Directive is twice as high as the AQG recommendation.

The WHO review found new evidence for effects of long-term exposures to ozone (O3) on respiratory mortality and on deaths among persons with predisposing chronic conditions. This adds to previous findings on short-term effects which are the focus of current regulation. An impact of ozone exposure on cognitive development and reproductive health, including preterm birth is also suggested. The review recommends the development of AQGs for long-term average ozone concentrations.

A new AQG is also recommended for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a toxic gas produced by the combustion process in heating, power generation and especially vehicle engines. New studies have associated short- and long-term exposure to NO2 with mortality, hospital admissions, and respiratory symptoms at concentrations at or below the current EU limit values (which are set at the same level as the AQGs).