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European Regulation and Limits on Air Pollution

When exposed to air pollutants in ambient air, or the air that we breathe, this can have an adverse effect on our health. The European Union (EU) policy on air quality aims to develop and implement appropriate instruments to improve air quality. What health based standards and objectives does the EU need to fulfill? Read on more to find out. 

History of Initiatives on Air Quality in the EU

Air pollution has been a top political concern in the EU since the 1970s. The main instruments that looks to provide protection from excessive pollution concentrations are a series of Directives settings listed in order: 

  1. Air Quality Framework Directive 96/62/EC – established the standards for a range of pollutants including ozone, particulate matter (PM10), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in a period up to 2004.
  2. Ambient Air Quality Directive 2008/50/EC – combination of the Framework Directive and other directives into one single directive as part of the 2005 Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution. The directive was to set objectives for fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
  3. Ambient Air Quality Directive & daughter Directive 2004/107/EC – current framework used to control ambient concentrations of air pollution in the EU. The directives included here aim to control emissions from mobile sources, improve fuel quality, and promote environmental protection requirements into the transport and energy sector. 

How is European legislation built?

The member states of the EU need to introduce defined air pollution levels into the national law. European legislation builds this standard for air quality on the following principles:

  • Member States divide their territory into a number of zones and agglomerations. These target air quality zones are assessed of air pollution levels using measurements, modelling and other empirical techniques. These air quality zones’ report data is then shared accordingly alongside the existing legislations
  • When the level of air pollutants are above limit or target values, Member States should prepare an air quality plan or program that solves the responsible source. The information on air quality should also be shared with the public. 

What air quality standards exist in the EU?

The table below shows the standards for a number of pollutants present in the air. These pollutants apply over different periods of time because there are different health impacts depending on the exposure time. Other pollutant information can also be found online on EU air quality standards as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) value guidelines. The WHO value guidelines are set for the protection of health, and are generally stricter than the EU value guideline standards.


Pollutant Concentration Averaging Period
Fine particles (PM2.5) 25 µg/m3 1 year
Fine particles (PM10) 50 µg/m3

40 µg/m3

24 hours

1 year

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) 350 µg/m3


1 hour

24 hours

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) 200 µg/m3

40 µg/m3

1 hour

1 year

Lead (Pb) 0.5 µg/m3 1 year
Carbon Monoxide (CO) 10 µg/m3 Maximum daily 8 hour mean
Ozone (O3) 120 µg/m3 Maximum daily 8 hour mean


How are the standards for air quality set up in the EU?

In the European Commission, three methods are implemented for ambient air quality legislation:

  1. Understanding the problem: Using previous air quality framework directives, the data acquired can help understand the impact of individual pollutants, their sources, and evolutions of concentrations to develop the effective support needed.
  2. Methods and criteria
    1. Monitoring specific concentration threshold with the population within an air quality zone or agglomeration
    2. Selecting the appropriate siting (the ability to use monitoring information that supports further development of air policy as well as air pollution management in the area) of a monitoring station
    3. Prescription of reference measurement methods for a standardized monitoring
    4. Modelling to validate monitoring and provide comprehensive information in regards to public exposure, identification of sources, and future measure scenarios
  3. Ensuring quality of assessment information: Documenting the roles and responsibilities of the national reference laboratories and networks that summarizes quality assurance procedures and EU-wide comparisons.

There are also key questions that guide EU policies and address four important air pollutant areas:

  • Particulate matter (PM) – PM2.5 and PM10 (7 questions)
    • Example: Based on currently available health evidence: What PM metrics, health outcomes and concentration-response functions can be used for health impact assessment?
  • Ground-level ozone (4 questions)
    • Example: What new health evidence has been published in relation to the evidence or likeliness of a threshold below which impacts are not expected?
  • Other air pollutants and their mixtures (10 questions)
    • Example: There is evidence of increased health effects linked to proximity to roads.  What evidence is available that specific air pollutants or mixtures are responsible for such increases, taking into account co-exposures such as noise?
  • General questions (5 questions)
    • Example: What evidence is available directly assessing health benefits from reducing air pollution?

The answers to 22 out of 26 questions relevant for the review of European policies on air pollution and addressing health aspects of these policies can also be found online

What is being done to reduce air pollution in the EU?

The severity of air pollution impacts human health as well as acidification and ground-ozone pollution. The EU has placed policies in limiting the individual sources and national sources of atmosphere emissions of the key pollutants. The new set up Directive looks to target national reduction in five pollutants that play a role in human and environmental health. In addition, the European Environmental Agency (EEA) makes air quality status, air quality plans, interactive maps available to the public and data viewers to support policy designing, monitoring, evaluation, and communication between policy-makers and the public.

Pollutants covered by EU National Emission Ceiling legislation and 2030 targets. Source: European Commission

At Breeze Technologies, we offer real-time and historic air quality data derived through machine learning and big data technologies that can be compared to national and international standards. Our air quality sensors and technology can be used across various sectors at urban, regional, national, and international levels, thus supporting interventions for our health, our climate, our economy, and our future. This option is not only available for companies and government agencies, but everyday citizens as well. Our Citizen Portal for Air Quality provides comprehensive and hyperlocal air quality data for free to all interested individuals, because we believe clean air is a universal human right. Contact us today if you would like to start working on better air quality yourself!