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EU Longing for Fresh Air




Ambient air quality is poor in many EU Member States – despite an obligation for governments to ensure good air quality for citizens. The situation is so serious that the Commission is currently taking action against 17 States with a consistent record of poor air quality.

Today, as part of a fresh approach to the problem, Bulgaria, Latvia and Slovenia are being asked to urgently address an on-going issue that kills more citizens than road traffic accidents every year.

The problem concerns tiny particles known as PM10s, which can cause respiratory problems, lung cancer and premature death. Poor air quality is a direct threat to citizens exposed to pollution from fine particles (PM10), which originates from sources such as road traffic, industrial activity and domestic heating. According to the latest research, a majority (56 %) of Europeans believe that air quality has deteriorated in the last 10 years.

In the past, the Commission has successfully taken Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden to Court for failing to ensure good air quality for citizens. But the Court rulings that resulted only covered the failure to comply with air quality limit values in the past, providing little incentive for Member States to act on future exceedances.

A fresh approach is therefore being taken, enlarging the scope of the legal action. The aim now is to urge Member States with on-going air quality problems to take forward-looking, speedy and effective action to keep the period of non-compliance as short as possible. The Commission is particularly concerned with cases where non-compliance with EU law has lasted for more than 5 years and is forecast to continue in the future. Under EU law, Member States are obliged to take all the necessary measures to improve air quality, and to make this information available in form of air quality plans. Failure to do so will result in legal action.

The full list of Member States concerned by PM10 exceedances is Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Today’s action – technically additional letters of formal notice – against Bulgaria, Latvia and Slovenia is in line with similar steps taken against Belgium in November 2012, and with forthcoming legal action against all other Member States that suffer from persistently high levels of PM10 particles in ambient air.


Airborne particles (PM10) are mainly present in pollutant emissions from industry, traffic and domestic heating. They can cause asthma, cardiovascular problems, lung cancer and premature death. Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe requires Member States to limit the exposure of citizens to these particles. The legislation sets limit values for exposure covering both an annual concentration value (40 μg/m3), and a daily concentration value (50 μg/m3) that must not be exceeded more than 35 times in a calendar year.

Since the legislation entered into force in 2005, the limit values for PM10 have not been respected in 17 Member States – AT, BE, BG, CZ, DE, EL, ES, FR, HU, IT, LV, PT, PL, RO, SE, SK and SL.

PM10 limit values were to be met by 2005 (or, in the case of Romania and Bulgaria, from the date of accession), although Member States could ask the Commission to extend the time for meeting the standards until June 2011. Such exemptions were subject to a number of conditions. Most importantly, Member States had to present an air quality plan setting out the relevant abatement actions during the extension period and demonstrate that they had taken all the necessary steps to achieve compliance by the extended deadline.

Previously, legal action against Member States failing to comply with air quality requirements was based on a breach of Article 13 of the Directive, which requires Member States not to exceed limit values for PM 10. The new approach however also covers Article 23 of the Directive, challenging the failure of many Member States to establish specific air quality plans which should set out appropriate measures, so that the exceedance period can be kept as short as possible.

Implementation of EU legislation is a priority for the Commission, especially since unnecessary delays in reducing harmful pollutants can mean continued damage to human health.


Anna van Densky

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