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Public Health

Health-EU Newsletter 229 – Focus

Medical community urged to talk about links between air pollution and health

Veronica Manfredi, Director of the European Commission’s Quality of Life Directorate at the Directorate General Environment, talks about EU measures to reduce air pollution and its impact on health, an issue in the global spotlight.

How big of a problem is air pollution in the EU? Is this mainly a problem elsewhere?

In India, doctors are finding teenagers in New Delhi with lungs as black and damaged as those of 70-year-olds’ back in the 1980s. Yes, that is in India and we are fortunate in the EU to have legislation that sets legal air pollution limits, but despite this, more than 130 EU cities do not meet all of these standards and in some cases, during peak times air pollution in urban areas can reach the same levels as in New Delhi.

Air pollution is a global problem. WHO estimates point to more than 4.2 million premature deaths globally due to outdoor air pollution each year; and for Europe, the European Environment Agency estimates this number to be in excess of 400.000 premature deaths each year – especially due to particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone.

What has the EU done so far to address air pollution?

We have legislation that sets common air quality targets, commits to emission limits at national level, and sets standards for key pollution sources. And we provide funding to support air quality measures. Under the European Structural and Investment Funds, for example, 1.8 billion Euro was allocated for this for the 2014-2020 period. Add to this other funding that can indirectly benefit air quality, like the 45 billion Euro investment in the low carbon economy.

Funding is an incentive – it’s the proverbial carrot, but we also have a stick. We can and do take legal action to enforce EU legislation, and infringement cases may end up at the European Court of Justice. We are currently very concerned about 30 cases in 20 Member States where the legal limits for particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide or sulphur dioxide are exceeded persistently.

It is important to remember, however, that legal action is a merely a means to achieve compliance – there are others. We also facilitate the sharing of best practices: for example, we set up or are active in several relevant networks and organise Clean Air Dialogues and Environmental Implementation Review Dialogues with Member States.

What further measures could be taken?

We need to look at reducing emissions further across all economic sectors, be it industry, transport, residential heating and agriculture. For the latter, we need to reduce the use of ammonia and nitrates in fertilisers – and thus reduce both air and water pollution.

It is high time we meet EU air quality standards throughout the European Union. And we need to improve outdoor air quality significantly beyond this, moving closer to WHO recommended levels.

The situation seems dire. Is there any good news?

Yes, there is good news: we know that Clean Air policy works! Thanks to joint efforts by the EU and the national, regional and local authorities, air pollution has decreased in the EU over the last decades. Emissions of air pollutants decreased significantly too, even during a period of continued strong economic growth. We are on the right track but still have some way to go. We aim to cut air pollutant emissions by half by 2030 with the national reduction commitments enshrined in EU law, and therefore to also reduce its health impacts by half compared to 2005.

Reaching that goal requires taking urgent action now. It requires Member States adopting ambitious plans and fully implementing them, and it requires the full support and engagement of the medical community.

Activities at EU level


European Commission – Environment

Clean Air

European Commission – Environment

LIFE programme

Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises


EU budget: Commission proposes to increase funding to support the environment and climate action

For the next long-term EU budget 2021-2027, the Commission is proposing to increase funding by almost 60% for LIFE, the EU programme for the environment and climate action.

LIFE Programme: Member States to benefit from quarter of a billion euros of investments in environment, nature and climate action

The Commission has approved an investment package of €243 million for projects under the LIFE programme supporting nature, the environment and quality of life in Europe's transition to a more sustainable and low-carbon future.

New Year’s wishes - key policymakers asked what they want out of LIFE

At the beginning of the New Year, key policymakers who support and helped develop the Environment Directorate General’s LIFE programme (including Director of Quality of Life Veronica Manfredi) were asked what they wished for the programme.

Ambitious emission limits for power plants would result in significant pollution cuts in the EU

According to a new European Environment Agency analysis, setting strict but realistic emission limits for the power sector could cut emissions of key pollutants by 79-91 % by 2030.

What’s the quality of the air you breathe?

The European Air Quality Index lets you pinpoint your country and check the quality of the air as it was 6 to 48 hours ago.

EU air quality standards available online

The EU has developed an extensive body of legislation that establishes health based standards and objectives for a number of pollutants present in the air, as summarised here.

What EU measures are available to help Member States fight air pollution?

See the European Commission Communication 'A Europe that protects: Clean air for all', which outlines measures available to help EU Member States reduce air pollution.

What European Union legislation exists regarding air pollution?

EU legislation on air quality, atmospheric pollution, land motor vehicles and other vehicles is available online. Under ‘air quality’ you’ll find Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe.

9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, but more countries are taking action

Air pollution levels remain dangerously high in many parts of the world. New data from WHO shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants.

More than 90% of the world’s children breathe toxic air every day

93% of the world’s children under age 15 (1.8 billion children) breathe such polluted air that endangerstheir health and development.WHO estimates that in 2016, 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air.

Next EU Clean Air Forum to take place in November 2019

The Commission is organising, in close collaboration with the Ministry of Environment of the Slovak Republic, a second EU Clean Air Forum in Bratislava. This Forum will focus on air quality and energy; air quality and agriculture; and clean air funding mechanisms.

EU Sustainable Energy Week, Policy Conference and Sustainable Energy Awards coming up in Brussels this June

Deadlines for hosting a session or a networking activity are coming up now, this month and next. Consult the guidelines and apply for the Awards by 11 February!

Other interesting links