EU states breached air pollution limits in 2020 despite COVID

FILE PHOTO: The Eiffel Tower is surrounded by a small-particle haze which hangs above the skyline in Paris, France, December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Most European Union countries broke at least one air pollution limit last year, even as COVID-19 lockdowns improved air quality in many regions, according to provisional European Environment Agency (EEA) data published on Tuesday.

Excessive air pollution has landed around 10 EU countries in court in recent years, and while air quality has improved this decade it remains Europe's biggest environmental health risk.

Most of the EU's 27 member states exceeded at least one of the bloc's limits for air pollutants in 2020, according to provisional EEA data from monitoring stations.

Hotspots in eight EU countries broke annual limits for nitrogen dioxide pollution last year, a large improvement from the 18 countries exceeding the limits in 2019, the EEA said.

The reduction was driven partly by lockdowns introduced to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, which sharply reduced road transport. Traffic is the main source of nitrogen dioxide pollution, which can cause asthma and breathing problems.

Meanwhile, areas in eight EU countries broke daily EU limits for particulate matter last year, compared with 16 countries in 2019. Only two EU countries breached annual particulate matter pollution limits in 2020, the EEA said.

Prolonged exposure to particular matter can cause lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Key sources include burning solid fuels, and particulate matter levels are particularly high in regions of central and eastern Europe where coal is commonly used for home heating.

A total of 17 EU countries breached the EU's target values last year for ozone pollution, a pollutant formed by chemical reactions between heat, light and other greenhouse gases.

COVID-19 lockdowns had less impact on ozone pollution, which is also determined by meteorological conditions, the EEA said.

In a bid to reduce premature deaths associated with dirty air, the European Commission has said it will revise EU pollution limits next year to better align them with upcoming World Health Organization recommendations.

(Reporting by Kate Abnett; Editing by Mark Potter)

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