Air pollution is costing economies up to €940bn a year and causing 10 times more deaths than traffic accidents, warns the EU, as business interests clamour for lighter regulation and fewer restrictions.
The World Health Organization is expected to declare today that particulate matter — produced by traffic and particularly diesel — and ozone are cancer-causing and say emissions should be severely lowered.
A study in 12 European countries published in The Lancet showed air pollution lowers the birth weight of babies when their mothers are exposed to levels of particulates even lower than the current EU limit.
The facts coincide with Germany insisting its big car industry needs until 2024 rather than 2020 to meet new emission limits. They convinced environment ministers on Tuesday to delay a decision that could now take years to achieve.
A furious environment commissioner Janez Potocnik issued a sharp rebuke to those arguing environmental measures were costing too much: “If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money.”
About 90% of city dwellers in the EU are exposed to two of the most damaging air pollutants at levels considered harmful by the WHO, according to the report from the European Environmental Agency.
Some rural areas also have significant levels of air pollution, the report says. Ireland’s air was among the cleanest partly due to the economic crisis as less traffic on the roads reduced PM10 — fine particulate matter — and NO2, nitrogen oxide.
But the agency said it expects EU levels will be brought closer to the more stringent WHO limits as new evidence shows human health can be harmed by lower concentrations of air pollution than previously thought, the report says.
Mr Potocnik said air pollution is the top environmental cause of death in the EU with more than 400,000 premature deaths in 2010 — over 10 times the deaths from traffic accidents.
“This is a huge cost to citizens’ health and the economy. The external costs were between €330bn-€940bn per year in 2010. Among these are significant direct impacts on the economy: 100m lost workdays each year, with a direct cost of about €15bn in lost productivity. Bad air also adds €4bn to our healthcare costs because of hospitalisation.”
The report highlights two specific pollutants — particulate matter and ground-level ozone — as a continuing source of breathing problems, cardiovascular disease and shortened lives.
“Surveys show that a large majority of citizens understand well the impact of air quality on health and are asking public authorities to take action at EU, national and local levels, even in times of austerity and hardship. I am ready to respond to these concerns,” said Mr Potocnik.