Brussels -- The European Commission is referring Belgium and Bulgaria to EU Court of Justice over persistently high levels of the dust particles which pose a major risk to public health. Despite an obligation for Member States to ensure good air quality for citizens, air quality has been a problem in many places for a number of years now. Studies show that every year poor air quality causes more deaths than road traffic accidents. Tiny particles known as PM10s, mostly resulting from human activities such as transport, industry and domestic heating cause respiratory problems, lung cancer and premature death.
EU legislation has set limit values for PM10 (i.e. particulate matter of a diameter of less than 10 microns) since 2005. In case of exceedance of such limit values, Member States adopt air quality plans and ensure that such plans set appropriate measures so that the exceedance period can be kept as short as possible by adopting decisive and more forward-looking action. Measures are necessary to improve air quality, and by targeting the failures to act, the Commission hopes to ensure that Member States will take decisive, problem-solving action.
In Bulgaria, despite a number of measures taken and some reductions in PM10 emissions registered at most monitoring points since 2011, the data shows persisting non-compliance with the annual and/or daily limit values for PM10 in all the country's 6 zones and agglomerations other than in Varna, which complied with the annual limit value once – in 2009. Today's decision follows a reasoned opinion sent in July 2014.
Belgium's track record on air quality has seen some improvements in recent years, as only 3 zones and agglomerations (Brussels, Ghent port zone and Roeselare port zone) show continued failures to meet the targets. The proposed summons of the case to the Court follows a reasoned opinion sent in February 2014, in a case first opened in 2008. Although measures have been adopted for all the air quality zones addressed in the Commission's action, the measures have not been so far sufficient to solve the problem, and as the deadline for compliance has long expired, the Commission is taking the case to the EU Court of Justice.
The main limit values for which there are compliance problems in the EU are PM10, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) originating in traffic fumes and (to a much lesser extent) SO2. For SO2 only one Member State is in infringement, while for PM10 we have court cases against 16 Member States. For NO2, there are 6 procedures under way.
The Commission also took action today against another Member State, Sweden, for poor air quality, sending a reasoned opinion. The latest figures show maximum daily limits for these particles being exceeded in two zones – Middle Sweden (agglomerations of Norrköping, Södertälje and Uppsala, except for 2012) and Stockholm agglomeration. Sweden has previously been condemned by the Court for not meeting PM10 limit values between 2005 and 2007. The Commission considers that Sweden has failed to take measures that should have been in place since 2005, and is asking it to take forward-looking, speedy and effective action to keep the period of non-compliance as short as possible. Today's reasoned opinion follows an additional letter of formal notice sent on 26 April 2013. If Sweden fails to act, the Commission may take the matter to the EU's Court of Justice.
There are 16 open infringement actions for PM10 at various stages, against Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Slovakia and Slovenia. Belgium and Bulgaria are the first cases of this type to be brought to Court.
Airborne particles (PM10) are mainly present in emissions from industry, traffic and domestic heating. They can cause asthma, cardiovascular problems, lung cancer and premature death. European legislation 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.
The limit values for PM10 entered into force in 2005.
The Commission has also started taking action on another carcinogenic pollutant, NO2 for which EU legislation has set limits since 2010. Most emissions result from traffic and diesel cars in particular. Seventeen Member States have reported excess levels since 2010, and infringement proceedings have already been opened against the United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Germany and France. Action against other Member States may follow.