By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Air pollution is shortening lives by almost two years in parts of the European Union, the European Environmental Agency (EEA) said, strengthening the case for a tightening of emissions restrictions in the bloc.
Legislation had managed to cut the amount of some toxins belched out by exhaust fumes and chimneys across Europe, according to an EEA report published on Monday.
But there were still dangerous levels of microscopic particles, known as particulate matter and linked to diseases such as lung cancer and cardiovascular problems, it added.
On average, air pollution was reducing human lives across the region by roughly eight months, the report said. It also quoted separate European Commission-funded research showing that a reduction in particulate levels could extend life expectancy by 22 months in some areas.
The report did not spell out where those areas were, but it said that Poland and other industrial regions of eastern Europe had particularly high levels or particulate pollution.
Alone among British cities, London also exceeded daily EU limits for particulate matter.
Speaking after the launch of the report, EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said that a review of EU air quality laws next year needed to bring EU limits on pollution levels closer to the stricter World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations on safe levels of pollutants.
"This (the report) is a really serious warning about the importance to our quality of life and health," Potocnik told Reuters.
Apart from the impact on health, EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade said that the pollution costs the bloc 1 trillion euros ($1.3 trillion) a year in healthcare and dealing with the wider impact on ecosystems.
"European Union policy has reduced emissions of many pollutants over the last decade, but we can go further," she said.
OZONE ANOTHER CHALLENGE
Particulate matter is considered to be the most serious air pollution risk in Europe. Using the most recent data from 2010, the report said 21 percent of the bloc's urban population was exposed to larger particulate matter at concentrations above a daily EU limit.
Up to 30 percent of city dwellers faced exposure to finer particles above the yearly EU target level. These finer particles are small enough to pass from the lungs into the bloodstream, making them particularly hazardous to health.
Another major air pollutant is ozone, which can cause respiratory problems. Again, exposure levels were high, with sunny Mediterranean nations particularly affected because sunlight is needed to form ozone.
In 2010, 97 percent of EU inhabitants were exposed to ozone above the WHO reference levels - and 17 percent above the much lower EU target level.
The pollutants come from fumes from cars, industry and household fuel burning.
After going through complex chemical reactions in the air, the pollutants get into water and agricultural land, thereby posing a threat to agricultural production.
While many pollutants are an unremitting problem, there has been success in dealing with sulphur dioxide, whose levels have dropped following laws on sulphur content in fuels.
In 2010, the EU urban population for the first time was not exposed to sulphur dioxide above the EU limit level.
($1 = 0.7699 euros)
(Additional reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Rex Merrifield, David Goodman and Richard Chang)