The European Court of Auditors has issued a withering assessment of efforts to monitor and tackle air pollution across the EU, in a report issued this week.
Legislation which sets limits on air pollutants and defines the requirements for monitoring of air quality by member states, the Ambient Air Quality Directive, also requires updating, the report has warned.
The Court, which is known as the fifth institution of the EU, has also criticised the European Commission for its monitoring of progress towards meeting air quality targets and slow enforcement action against member states who have failed to meet targets.
According to the report, although EU air quality standards have been in place for a number of years, many are still much weaker than the World Health Organisation guidelines which are more closely aligned with health evidence on the impacts of air pollution.
And, while emissions of air pollutants have been decreasing, many member states still do not comply with the legal limits and are failing to take effective action to improve air quality.
Janusz Wojciechowski, the Member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report said: â€œAir pollution is the biggest environmental risk to health in the European Union.
â€œIn recent decades, EU policies have contributed to emission reductions, but air quality has not improved at the same rate and there are still considerable impacts on public health.â€
The European Commission made headlines across the continent earlier this year when it began the process of legal action against the UK and other member states including France and Germany over continued failure to meet limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and for failing to take appropriate measures to keep exceedance periods as short as possible.
Hungary, Italy, and Romania have also been referred to the EUâ€™s Court of Justice over persistently high levels of particulate matter (PM10).
However, some critics have suggested that this action has occurred too late, as limit values were required to be met in 2010 under the requirements of the EUâ€™s ambient air quality Directive (see airqualitynews.com story).
As part of the report, auditors also checked the information made available by public authorities in six cities.
The auditors suggested that many member states, regions and cities define air quality indices differently, resulting in different assessments for the same air quality.
And, the report also questioned whether there were â€˜sufficient guaranteesâ€™ that air quality was being measured in the right locations by member states.
It stated: â€œDue to imprecise criteria in the Directive, the Member States did not necessarily measure concentrations near main urban roads or big industrial sites, which were still major sources of pollution. We note that the deadline for Member States to report data to the Commission as set by the AAQ Directive is less strict than in earlier Directives.â€
Commenting on the findings of the report, Margherita Tolotto, air quality policy officer at the lobby group European Environment Bureau, said: â€œEuropean air quality laws are breached on a continental scale, yet the scientific evidence is clear: the limits the EU has set are still not strong enough to effectively protect our health. Governments must wake up to this crisis and start to take the threat posed by toxic air more seriously.â€
On the differences between city-level warning systems, she said: â€œItâ€™s unacceptable that such stark differences exist between air quality warning systems. Children are particularly vulnerable to poor air quality and parents have the right to be effectively warned about dangerous air pollution, which should be defined by the concentration of pollutants in the air and not depend on the city they live in.â€