10 principles for clean air

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Air pollution has been linked with a number of health problems including chronic cough, phlegm, lung infections, lung cancer, heart disease and heart attack. Daily concentrations of air pollution in most of Europe are still higher than European Union (EU) target values, causing harm to millions of people across the continent.

Experts from the European Respiratory Society (ERS) have released 10 principles for clean air to help guide Europe’s policy makers to take action to protect people from health risks caused by poor air quality.

The call to action comes ahead of an upcoming review of major EU outdoor air quality legislation.

The 10 principles for clean air:

Guiding principles:

1) Citizens are entitled to clean air, just like clean water and safe food.

Although this principle seems obvious, the reality is that millions of Europeans live in areas where it is unsafe to breathe the air around them.

2) Outdoor air pollution is one of the biggest environmental health threats in Europe today, leading to significant reductions of life expectancy and productivity.

The effect of outdoor air pollution should not be underestimated. It can reduce people’s lifespan, cause serious heart and lung disease and reduce the amount of work people are able to do.

Causes of poor air quality:

3. Fine particles and ozone are the most serious pollutants. There is an urgent need to reduce their concentrations significantly.

  • Fine particles come from burning fuel, such as diesel in vehicles. They are also formed in the air by chemical reactions involving sulphur and nitrogen oxides.
  • Ground-level ozone is created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) – emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, chemical plants and other sources – in the presence of sunlight

4. Roadside pollution poses serious health threats that cannot be adequately addressed by regulating fine particle mass or ozone. Other metrics such as ultrafine particles and black carbon need to be considered in future research and so inform further regulation.

There are some pollutants that are less known than fine particles and ozone, which should be considered in future research. Two examples of these that often exist in the air around the roadside close to where people live and commute, are black carbon and ultrafine particles.

  • Black carbon, also known as soot, is generated by the burning of fossil fuels. There is increasing evidence that inhalation of black carbon particles is associated with a wide range of health effects – including heart attacks and reduced lung function.
  • Ultrafine particles, which come from car exhausts, are much smaller than other particles in the air. They can enter the blood stream and can trigger inflammation.

5. Non-tailpipe emissions (from brakes, tires and road surfaces, etc.) pose a health threat for road users and subjects living close to busy roads.

Damaging particles in the air don’t always come from cars’ exhausts, they can also come from the erosion of materials, such as tarmac on the roads and the wear of brakes or tyres from a car.

6. Real-world emissions of nitrogen dioxide from modern diesel engines are much higher than anticipated. This may expose many road users, and subjects living on busy roads, to short-term peak concentrations during rush hours and periods of stagnating weather that may impact on health, although to what extent requires further research.

Modern diesel engines produce more nitrogen dioxide in the real world than when tested in the laboratory. Experts believe that long-term exposure to this gas can cause problems with the lungs. As emissions of this gas seen in recent years are much higher than predicted it could be putting people at risk, particularly those living close to busy roads and those who commute during rush hours. Further research is needed to understand more about this risk.

7. Global warming will lead to more heatwaves, during which air pollution concentrations are also elevated and during which hot temperatures and air pollutants act in synergy to produce more serious health effects than expected from heat or pollution alone.

Hot weather and air pollution together lead to more serious health effects – something that will become increasingly important in the face of global warming.

8. Combustion of biomass fuel produces toxic pollutants. This is true for controlled fires, such as in fireplaces, woodstoves and agricultural burning, as well as for uncontrolled wildfires. There is a need to assess the real health impacts of air pollution from these sources in many areas in Europe to inform on the need for better control.

Biomass includes things such as plants or dead trees. These are burnt across the globe in fireplaces and woodstoves and also during wildfires. This principle suggests experts should focus research on how biomass burning affects our health to help decide how levels can be controlled.

Action needed:

9. Compliance with current limit values for major air pollutants in Europe confers no protection for public health. In fact, very serious health effects occur at concentrations well below current limit values, especially those for fine particles.

Legislation on air pollution in Europe urges governments to reduce concentrations of pollutants to a specific limited value. However, serious health effects can still occur from concentration levels far below the values stated in current legislation, particularly for fine particles.

10. EU policies to reduce air pollution are needed that ultimately lead to air that is clean and no longer associated with significant adverse effects on the health of European citizens. The benefits of such policies outweigh the costs by a large amount.

The final principle highlights the need for EU policies to reduce air pollution so that that the air we breathe is clean and does not damage our health. The benefits of this would far outweigh the costs.


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