Choking on Emissions: Why Europe’s health depends on the Clean Air Policy Package

Last Sunday morning queuing up at the local bakery, I heard from my neighbour that she and her work colleagues had decided collectively to hand in their Volkswagen company cars in protest to Volkswagen’s deception in fitting millions of cars with software designed to cheat emissions tests.

Volkswagen is now under investigations in numerous countries, including Germany, after admitting that it has fitted 11 million vehicles worldwide with devices capable of cheating pollution emissions tests.

Such behaviour from the modest  ‘car of the people’ company leaves me choking over what must be years of inaccurate emissions tests. Further, where does this leave us in our commitment to counter climate change and secure a healthier environment for our children – A mission failed, and a once trusted German car giant fallen from grace.

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution has become the world’s top environmental cause of premature death, overtaking dirty water and lack of sanitation [1].  Air pollution is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and cancer [2]. 

Settling like ashes on our minds, the grave numbers are in: 400,000 EU citizens dying annually due to air pollution. In addition, the health-related economic costs caused by smog are enormous, amounting to between €330 and €940 billion for the year 2010 alone [3]. This includes €15 billion from lost workdays and €4 billion from healthcare costs. These figures are shockingly high, but maybe such concern will give birth to new commitment – with many more citizens like my neighbour taking a stand, and sacrificing their family car, in the name of clean air.

More than a decade ago the WHO Air Quality Guideline [4] set out recommended limit values for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometer (PM2.5) in the air which results from the exhaust of motor vehicles, and fuel combustion in power plants, and has been linked to vastly reduced lung function, heart failure, heart attacks, lung cancer, to name just a few. The WHO guidelines stated these small particles which penetrate the airways and lungs, should be reduced from 25 µg/m3 to 10 µg/m3. In the USA they took heed and reduced limits from 15 µg/m3 down to 12 µg/m3. Yet in Europe  we are still clocking in at  25 µg/m3 with eleven Member States continuing to exceed that year after year. 

Indeed, the vast majority of EU citizens are exposed to air pollutants day after day which are actively harmful to their health.

There is enormous public will to act, and yet valid, evidence-based solutions, seem, until now, to have fallen on deaf ears. In its new position paper, “Particulates Matter: Why the EU must do more to tackle air pollution [5]”,  the European Chronic Disease Alliance, calls on the EU to implement robust legislation that tackles both emissions sources and ambient air concentrations to protect health, cut healthcare costs and save lives.

At the end of this month we will finally see a chance for the EU to make a real difference in the quality of air that Europeans are breathing with the vote in the European Parliament on a revised National Emission Ceilings Directive [6], a key component of the long-awaited Clean Air Policy Package [7].

If agreed and fully implemented,  the new Clean Air Policy Package is estimated to be able to prevent 58,000 premature deaths and produce savings of healthcare costs amounting to between EUR 40 and 140 billion  by 2030.

‘58,000 premature deaths’. Should there any question about it at all?

Let’s drive this.


[1] Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks in 188 countries, 1990–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. The Lancet September 11, 2015.

[2] WHO regional office for Europe. Air quality and health resolution adopted at the sixty-eighth World Health Assembly. 2015.

[3] European Commission. Commission Staff Working Document: Impact Assessment on National Emissions Ceiling (NEC Directive)

[4]Air quality guidelines – global update 2005, World Health Organization  

[5] Particulates Matter: Why the EU must do more to tackle air pollution, October 2015, European Chronic Disease Alliance,


[7] Council of the European Union; The clean air package: Improving Europe’s air quality.   


Sara Martin

Associate Director, EU

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *