The EU executive has proposed tougher controls on pollutants and chemicals that damage air quality and foul lakes, rivers and seas, but health campaigners said the plans lacked urgency.
As part of a major overhaul of EU anti-pollution legislation, the European Commission said it planned to tighten air quality standards, including for one of the most dangerous pollutants, fine particulate matter. Water standards are also going to be more stringent, with 25 substances added to a control list, such as the category of PFAS (also known as “chemicals forever”)the substance Bisphenol Apesticides, including glyphosate, and antibiotics.
Under the proposals, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies would first have to pay the costs of cleaning their products from wastewater.
The top EU official in charge of the european green dealFrans Timmermans told reporters: “Getting to climate neutrality is more than just reducing greenhouse gas emissions… to have a pollution-free environment by 2050, we must step up action today.”
“Day after day, we receive new information about the extent to which pollution directly endangers public health: babies now have microplastics in their blood and there are PFAS in homegrown fish and vegetables.
We pay for pollution with taxes, health and human lives. We pay, and the longer we wait to reduce this pollution, the greater the costs to society,” Timmermans said.
The legal proposals will be negotiated and likely modified by EU environment ministers and MEPs before they come into force.
Stricter air quality standards are the EU’s response to latest World Health Organization guidelines Recommend tighter controls on major air pollutants, in line with growing evidence of harm to health. The WHO called for greater restrictions on fine particles (PM2.5), coarse particles (PM10), ozone, nitrogen dioxidesulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide last September, calling air pollution the biggest environmental risk to health.
Fine particles, much smaller than the width of a human hair, can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, contributing to respiratory and heart disease. In Europe, 300,000 people die prematurely as a result of air pollution, cardiovascular problems, asthma and lung cancer, while many more live with these diseases. More than 96% of the EU’s urban population lives in areas where fine particles exceed WHO guidelines, according to the European Environment Agency.
Under the EU proposals, the annual limit for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) will be more than halved to 10 micrograms per cubic meter in 2030, down from the current 25 μg/m3but below the WHO recommendation of 5 μg/m3.
According to a commission impact assessment, the policy would improve air quality across the continent by 2030, including a swath of the south-east and central UK, assuming British air quality standards remain unchanged.
The Health and Environment Alliance (Heal), an umbrella group of health NGOs and public health experts, said the review of the ambient air quality directive did not “address the urgency to act, to reduce quickly the burden of health.
Dr. Christiaan Keijzer, Chairman of the Standing Committee of European Physicians, a Heal member, said: “EU air quality standards need to be updated by 2030 at the latest. In fact, European doctors consider it so urgent that we recommend full alignment with WHO guidelines to happen even faster, by 2025.”
Responding to criticism, EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said the commission’s interim target for 2030 took into account what was technically feasible, as well as socio-economic considerations. The commission, he added, had set “a clear path to a zero pollution goal fully aligned with science no later than 2050 … as soon as new technological and policy developments allow us to do so.”
EU officials have also promised easier access to justice for people suffering health problems as a result of pollution, while member states will be empowered to impose more “dissuasive” fines on polluters.
The commission also wants cleaner lakes and rivers: It proposes tighter controls on 16 pollutants and will add 25 to the list of substances subject to restrictions, including PFAS, a category that encompasses more than 4,700 “forever chemicals” widely used in packaging, not stick pans, textiles, cosmetics and electronic devices. These man-made substances accumulate in humans and the environment and have been linked to liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, fertility problems, and cancer.
In an update to EU wastewater legislation, the treatment industry will also face a requirement to be energy neutral by 2040, described by a senior EU official as “a mini-revolution for the sector”. . Wastewater treatment is responsible for about 1% of EU energy use and officials believe the sector could make much greater use of renewable energy, including biogas generation.