EU benzene, carbon monoxide, limits proposed

Commission rolls out second air quality daughter directive, first air limit for a carcinogen

First EU limits on benzene and carbon monoxide levels in air were proposed today by the European Commission. The proposal is tougher than expected for benzene, though derogations have been included as a sweetener for countries unable to meet the new standards without severe economic disruption.

The Commission sees the directive as particularly significant because it is the first time that it has attempted to set air quality limits for a carcinogen; benzene increases the risk of leukaemia. Since no threshold for adverse effects is known for carcinogens, the proposal adopts the "as low as reasonably achievable" principle, or ALARA, in deriving an air quality standard. Further proposals on ambient air limits of other carcinogens are now promised.

The standards proposed are 5 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) for benzene by 2010 and 10 milligrams per cubic metre (mg/m3) for carbon monoxide by 2005. The carbon monoxide standard is identical to a new World Health Organisation standard and was relatively un-controversial during the draft directive's preparation.

The same was not true of benzene, and the Commission's proposal takes a middle road between minorities of northern and southern EU countries who favoured tougher and weaker benzene standards respectively. European industry, through its principle association, Unice, also called for a less stringent standard of 10 ug/m3, to be reviewed in 2007 (ENDS Daily 10 September).

Proposed derogations for countries demonstrating "severe socio-economic" difficulties in meeting the main benzene limit appears to be the price paid by the Commission for getting a tougher general standard. Any derogations would have to be agreed with the Commission, would apply only to specified areas or towns and could last no longer than five years.

Both benzene and carbon monoxide are principally emitted by road traffic: 80-85% of EU benzene emissions are from road transport and about 65% of carbon monoxide. Oil refineries and fuel distribution operations could also be affected by the benzene limit, while domestic combustion is the second main carbon monoxide source.

Traffic planners could be the main group affected by the measure, however, because already programmed EU measures mean that the new limits are already on line to be met across most EU territory, leaving some city "hot spots" where exceedences are projected. The laws that are expected to achieve this are the package of Auto/Oil directives on vehicle emissions and fuel quality and the 1994 directive on integrated pollution prevention and control.

Under Auto/Oil alone, as finally agreed this summer, benzene emissions are expected to fall by 60% by 2010, compared with 70% that the Commission says will be necessary to meet the new limit proposed today.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111.

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