By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Air pollution, chiefly from coal-fired power plants, cost society up to 189 billion euros ($235 billion) in 2012 - equal to the gross domestic product of Finland, the European Environment Agency (EEA) said in a report published on Tuesday.
The agency provides research to guide EU policymakers, who are reconsidering proposals put forward last year by the European Commission, the EU executive, to tighten laws on air quality.
It analyzed the impact of air pollution from industry on health costs, lost working days, damage to buildings, reduced agricultural yields and other costs and found the cost was at least 59 billion euros and up to 189 billion euros in 2012.
The wide range reflects different ways of calculating costs and compares with estimates of between 79 billion and 251 billion euros in 2008 at the start of the 2008-2012 period analyzed.
Costs fell as EU environment law and an economic downturn curbed emissions including carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and particulate matter, but the researchers said it would be a challenge to maintain progress in reducing emissions during times of economic growth.
Of the 30 biggest facilities it identified as causing the most damage, 26 were power plants, mainly fueled by coal in Germany and eastern Europe.
At the end of last year, EU policymakers unveiled draft law to curb air pollution from industry and traffic.
The new Commission, in office since the start of November, is considering changing or even scrapping the proposed new air quality law, according to a document seen by Reuters. The Commission said it had not yet made a decision.
Some industrial sectors say they are struggling to be competitive and that EU regulation risks driving them out of Europe.
The coal sector says it offers a cheap, secure fuel source, indigenous to many European nations, and that the cost of switching to alternatives is high.
(editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Jane Baird)