Cars in Berlin: When they are used, fine dust and nitrogen oxides are released into the air
Photo: Florian Gaertner / Photothek / Getty Images
According to the European Environment Agency EEA, air pollution is the greatest environmental health threat in Europe.
If people constantly inhale pollutants, their risk of cardiovascular and lung diseases increases.
Most EU countries still find it difficult to comply with the applicable limit values.
In the majority of countries, at least one value exceeded the statutory limits in 2019, a report on Tuesday shows.
In the past, Germany had particular difficulties in complying with nitrogen oxide limit values.
In June 2021, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) condemned the state for having exceeded nitrogen dioxide levels “systematically and continuously” in 26 cities between 2010 and 2016.
Although nitrogen oxide pollution has been falling in this country for years, the applicable EU limit value is still being exceeded in some cases.
Now there is additional pressure from the World Health Organization (WHO), which assesses health risks from air pollution.
She presented her new air quality guidelines on Wednesday.
This contains significantly lower guide values for the recommended maximum exposure to fine dust and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than before.
Although the information is not legally binding, it could soon be included in EU regulations.
An analysis by the Science Media Center shows that the exposure to air pollutants in Germany is in many places above the recommended limits of the new WHO guideline.
All measuring stations exceed the new nitrogen dioxide limit
The biggest change is precisely at the limit for nitrogen dioxide pollution, which has been discussed again and again in Germany.
Nitrogen dioxide irritates the airways and can be a problem for asthmatics, for example.
It arises during combustion processes, for example in diesel engines.
In addition, the substance reacts with constituents of the air, creating what are known as secondary fine dust.
To protect health, there is a statutory limit of
40 micrograms per cubic meter of
for nitrogen dioxide as an
So far, this has been in accordance with the WHO guideline.
However, the organization has now significantly reduced the value and only recommends a maximum of
ten micrograms per cubic meter
as an annual average.
All 252 nitrogen dioxide measuring stations on streets in cities in Germany would have exceeded this new WHO guideline value on average in 2019 and 2020 - although traffic in the corona pandemic has meanwhile decreased significantly.
Even at 98 of 109 measuring stations in cities that are located away from the streets, the value would have been broken and even numerous measuring points in rural areas would not have complied with it.
For comparison: the earlier and official limit of 40 micrograms per cubic meter of air was exceeded at 51 measuring stations in 2019 - this always affected urban measuring points close to traffic.
In the pandemic year 2020, the value at seven measuring stations was too high.
However, the year is out of competition because there was significantly less traffic on the roads than usual.
So far, it has mainly been possible to reduce nitrogen dioxide pollution in areas where it was very high.
However, it was hardly possible to further reduce mean values.
In order to comply with the WHO limit value, more extensive countermeasures would have to be taken.
Too much fine deafness in many places
"In order to achieve improvements in air quality, comprehensive and ambitious measures are required in all sectors - such as transport, energy, industry, agriculture, housing - and at all levels - international, national, local," explains Tamara Schikowski, head of the working group at Leibniz. Institute for Environmental Medicine Research at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf.
Politicians and the automotive industry would have to rethink.
The new WHO value for fine dust from the PM2.5 fraction is also well below the statutory EU limit of
25 micrograms per cubic meter of
air as an annual mean. There has been a discrepancy between the WHO guideline and EU law for a long time. The WHO has so far recommended a maximum value of ten micrograms per cubic meter of air as an annual mean, which it has now reduced to
per cubic meter.
The EU requirements were met at all measuring stations in Germany in 2019 and 2020.
However, if one takes the previous WHO guideline as a basis, 53 of 67 urban stations close to traffic would have registered excessive loads in 2019.
That corresponds to about 80 percent.
In 2020, the situation eased significantly due to the pandemic.
However, if one takes the new WHO recommendation as a basis, even then all measuring stations except one exceeded the guideline value.
PM2.5 describes fine dust with an aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers.
Due to its small size, it can penetrate deep into the airways, lodge there and cause lung damage.
A similar, but not quite as gloomy picture as with PM2.5 emerges with fine dust of size PM10.
This means particles whose aerodynamic diameter is less than ten micrometers.
They can also put pressure on the airways.
Particulate matter is generated during combustion processes - for example in the engines of cars and trucks.
The legally stipulated limit value for the annual mean of fine dust of the size PM10 is
40 micrograms per square meter of
The new WHO recommendation specifies a value of
15 micrograms per square meter of
air, previously it was 20. In the past two years, all measuring stations in Germany have complied with the EU limit value for PM10 on an annual average.
However, if the value from the new WHO guideline is applied, almost all stations with urban locations close to traffic would have exceeded the recommended maximum value in 2019, a total of 113 of 119 measuring points.
In relation to the earlier WHO guideline value, there were 39 stations with higher values in that year.
WHO values could be adopted into law
The new WHO guideline is particularly important with a view to a resolution of the European Parliament from March 2021. According to this, the EU air quality standards are to be updated based on the new WHO assessment.
This is currently planned for the third quarter of 2022.
"With the guideline values, the WHO shows that even low concentrations of air pollutants that are far below the previous recommended guideline values can trigger serious health effects," says Barbara Hoffmann, head of the environmental epidemiology working group at the Institute for Occupational, Social and Environmental Medicine at Heinrich -Heine University Düsseldorf.
The WHO assumes that if its guideline values for fine particulate matter PM2.5 were adhered to, 80 percent of premature deaths attributable to this pollutant could be avoided.
In particular, with young people who are polluted by air pollutants, I can gain a lot of life and quality as a result.