Delays in cleaning up EU air will cause thousands more early deaths, say health experts | Air pollution

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Proposed delays to EU air pollution limits will mean hundreds of thousands more people dying early and will “widen the inequality gap” between eastern and western Europe, a group of public health experts have said, as EU negotiators thrash out key rules to clean up the air.

The World Health Organization has set guidelines for how many tiny particles and how much toxic gas can dirty the air, but stressed that no level of pollution is safe to breathe. Doctors writing in the International Journal of Public Health want the limits met by the end of the decade, but the European parliament wants to wait till 2035, the European Commission wants to set weaker limits for 2030 without setting a date to align with the WHO, and the European Council wants to let poorer countries wait till 2040.

“Every year of delay of reaching limit values directly translates into more death and disease,” said Barbara Hoffman, the chair of the European Respiratory Society (ERS) advocacy council and head of environmental epidemiology at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf.

Hoffman and colleagues from several public health institutes found that 330,000 more people would die early if EU member states with fine particulate levels greater than 10 micrograms per cubic metre were to delay bringing their pollution down to that level by a decade from 2030 to 2040. The WHO limit is 5 micrograms per cubic metre. “These numbers make it clear that allowing delays will impose a substantial, unjust and unacceptable loss of human lives in Europe,” the scientists wrote.

Doctors call bad air an invisible killer. Each breath a person takes draws in pollutants small enough to seep from the lungs into the bloodstream. Once in the blood, they flow through the body, hurting the organs.

The worst air in Europe is found in central and eastern countries, as well as in Italy, but a Guardian investigation in September found that 98% of Europeans breathe air so dirty it breaches WHO limits.

Europe dirty air map

The European Council has proposed that countries with a high share of low-income households and a GDP per person below the EU average should be allowed to hit limit values as late as 2040, because they have less money to invest in cleaning up. Many poorer European countries have dirty air because they stoke power plants with more coal to make electricity, burn more wood and coal to heat homes, and have older cars and factories.

The scientists said that “using poverty as an excuse to fail to act is the exact opposite of what these countries need”. It would be better for human health in these countries to set laws and provide money to speed up “urgently needed” clean air policies, they added.

“We need fair and ambitious new EU air quality legislation that values the health of all Europeans equally,” said Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Copenhagen and chair of the ERS environment and health committee. “Children and adults in eastern European countries have already been breathing the most polluted air in Europe – and suffering from related lung diseases – for far too long.”

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Bad air hurts economies because it means people take more sick days off work and need more treatment in hospital. An impact assessment from the European Commission found that fully meeting the WHO guidelines by 2030 would deliver the greatest net economic benefit of the three scenarios it considered, with savings of €38bn (£32bn) a year.

The financial implications were relevant, said Margherita Tolotto from the campaign group the European Environmental Bureau. “We need to keep in mind that the cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of action to reduce air pollution.”