Ozone limits "routinely exceeded" across Europe

European Environment Agency warns of effects on human health, crop productivity

Thresholds set for the protection of human health against the effects of ground-level ozone pollution are exceeded virtually everywhere in the EU and in some places by a substantial margin, according to a review of ozone monitoring activities between 1994 and 1996 just published by the European Environment Agency.

The agency calculates that more than 90% of the EU's population was exposed to at least one exceedance of both EU and World Health Organisation ozone thresholds in 1995 and that at least 700 hospital admissions were attributable to these exceedances. At least a further 3,000 admissions could be attributed to exposure to ozone below the thresholds, the report says.

The review constitutes the first assessment of the EU's ozone monitoring programme. This was set up under a 1992 directive which stipulated requirements for monitoring sites and frequencies and laid down threshold values for ozone concentrations in air, above which the public must be warned about air quality.

The results confirm earlier predictions that the EU would fail to meet non-binding indicative targets set down in the fifth environmental action programme in 1992. According to the programme, emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), the precursors of ozone pollution, were to be reduced by 30% from 1990 levels by 2000.

Emissions of both pollutants peaked in 1989, and declined by only 7% (VOCs) and 8% (NOx) between 1990 and 1994, the report says. According to the Gabriel Kielland of the agency's air quality department, this shows that the targets were "over-ambitious". They will not be met even implementation of forthcoming directives setting emissions ceilings for several ozone precursor pollutants and the EU's acidification and ozone strategies, he said. A situation in which ozone levels has no effect on human health was "unreachable" at the present time, he added.

Even more important than human health effects, however, is the impact that ozone has on crops and vegetation, according to Mr Kielland. Vegetation protection thresholds were exceeded "substantially and frequently" in 1994 and 1995, with virtually all forest and arable land subject to exceedances. As a result, said Mr Kielland, productivity of "wet crops" such as tomatoes was reduced and some plant species could disappear from certain ecosystems.

The report also recommends improvements in Europe's ozone monitoring system to make data more representative of real conditions over the entire territory of the EU. Mr Kielland pointed out the example that, although France has more many more monitoring stations than the UK, poor siting means that data is unrepresentative of the whole country, while the opposite is true for the UK.

Follow Up:
European Environment Agency, tel: +45 33 36 7100. References: "Tropospheric ozone in the European Union: the consolidated report".

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