EU targets deadly air pollution, pushes for cleaner water

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FILE PHOTO: ThyssenKrupp AG steel plant in Duisburg

By Kate Abnett

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Commission proposed on Wednesday tougher legal limits on health-damaging dirty air and rules to make pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies pay to clean up wastewater polluted by their products.

The European Union’s executive proposed three laws targeting air and water pollution. Among them is a requirement that, by 2030, EU countries must meet new legally-binding air pollution limits that will be closer to the stricter World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations.

The WHO tightened its air quality guidelines last year, hoping to push countries toward clean energy and prevent deaths caused by dirty air.

“Air pollution is still the largest environmental threat to our health. The impacts are worse for the most vulnerable – children, the elderly, people with certain medical conditions,” EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius told Reuters.

Air pollution causes 300,000 premature deaths in Europe each year. Sinkevicius said the tougher EU rules could reduce that number by 70% over the next 10 years.

Prolonged exposure to air pollutants, such as particulate matter from industry and nitrogen dioxide from traffic, can cause diabetes, lung disease and cancer.

The tighter limits would include more than halving the current annual EU limit on fine particulate matter by 2030. EU countries and the European Parliament must negotiate and approve the plans.

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The Commission said it would review the rules in 2028 with the aim of fully aligning them with the WHO, but its analysis had showed many EU areas would struggle to hit the WHO limits this decade.

Environmental law firm ClientEarth called the proposal a “major missed opportunity” because it introduced financial penalties for polluters that breach the rules, but not for authorities responsible for enforcing them.

“Air quality standards are an empty promise if there are no financial sanctions in place to hold governments accountable if they breach them,” ClientEarth head of clean air Ugo Taddei said.

Europe’s air quality has improved over the last decade, but the EU has still taken more than 10 countries to court for breaching its limits. The European Court of Justice has found countries including France, Poland, Italy and Romania guilty of illegal air pollution.

Another proposal would make companies responsible for some of the cost of cleaning up the pollution their products release into wastewater – a move that would target the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.

Brussels also wants to increase the list of controlled pollutants in ground or surface water.

(Reporting by Kate Abnett Additional reporting by Philip BlenkinsopEditing by Josie Kao, Mark Potter and Tomasz Janowski)