Harm to human health from airborne dust pollution has been seriously underestimated, forcing Europe to revisit its air quality legislation this year.

Acting on the results of a World Health Organisation (WHO) report released last Christmas, the European Commission decided to review, and tighten where needed, legislation on air emissions. After this UN body report, the EU declared 2013 the Year of Air.

The evidence that EU policies are inadequate to protect citizens’ health came as a shock. It was noted that in certain cases, the EU’s ambient air quality directive limits are actually half the limit set by WHO guidelines.

In an analysis of major global health risks, which involved 60 scientists sifting through eight years of data, outdoor air pollution was placed among the top 10 risks worldwide. Beyond premature deaths from respiratory and heart diseases, links were found to new conditions such as diabetes, still births and adverse effects on the cognitive development of children born to mothers exposed to even small levels of air pollution.

There is no ‘safe’ level of particulate matter in the air. The origin could be from natural sources such as red Sahara dust or volcanic ash, but even at concentrations below current air quality guidelines, particulate matter can contribute to a health risk. This is backed up by the WHO report:

“Scientific evidence does not suggest a threshold below which no adverse health effects would be anticipated when exposed to particulate matter.”

Airborne particles with a diameter of less than 10 microns have the most significant short-term effects on human health, while even smaller particles (PM2.5) are responsible for the most severe health effects overall.

A second report on air quality from the European Environment Agency report shows the extent to which Europe’s citizens are exposed to airborne pollutants. The study covers 38 European countries as well as Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Turkey. This is further confirmation that particulate matter is the most serious air pollution health risk in the EU and can lead to premature mortality.

Particles of quarry dust, sea salt, pollen and mould are normally about one-tenth the size of a tiny grain of sand at PM₁₀ (between 2.5 and 10 microns). These ‘coarse’ particles are predominantly of natural origin, while the even more harmful ‘fine’ fraction (2.5 microns and under) is mainly produced by combustion in vehicles, shipping, industry and power stations.

Finer dust particulate matter at 2.5 microns and below has been found to be a much greater health hazard than previously understood. A quarter of people living in urban areas are exposed to a concentration of levels higher than the most stringent particulates daily EU limit set to safeguard health.

Particulate matter is the most serious air pollution health risk in the EU and can lead to premature mortality

Up to a third of people living in urban areas all over the European continent are exposed to finer PM₂∙₅ levels above the yearly EU limit. These revelations only serve to underline the urgency of the current review of air legislation.

In a graph which apportions different sources of particulate matter, the Institute for Environment and Sustainability details ‘soil dust’ and sea salt as making up three per cent and 24 per cent respectively.

This may have a bearing on the Maltese government’s claim in 2008 that nearly half of exceedances on the daily limit value for PM₁₀ “were attributed to natural sources from the Sahara dust and sea spray”. At the time, this argument was accepted by the European Commission.

At a discussion on clean air held earlier this month, the Minister of Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change Leo Brincat pointed a finger at illegalities over inferior quality diesel. As minister for the environment he is keen to see that an update of Malta’s air quality plan being prepared for submission to the European Commission “will not be a cut-and-paste” job.

In a reference to emissions monitored at the Marsaxlokk power station, he jibed: “Delimara pollutes, Mepa pays”, adding that the Malta Environment and Planning Authority should be alert and act like a watchdog rather than a pocket dog.

Jason Bonnici referred to some results of the Respira project, a part-funded EU project on the link between respiratory illnesses and ambient air quality.

The study, which involved 600 Maltese schoolchildren, found particulate matter levels in all schools taking part in the study were higher than the prescribed EU limits. Emissions near schools were mostly from traffic and rose to the highest levels at the time when children were arriving at school in the morning.

A quarter of women living in Fgura and 20 per cent of women living in Żejtun suffer from asthma. Residents of these towns are exposed to cumulative effects from the Marsa power station, a major arterial road, and Dockyard grit blasting.

Tyre, brake and clutch wear dust fall under non-exhaust vehicle emissions, which push up the particulate count. Idling of private cars, buses and taxis, often to keep air conditioners working while waiting, should be discouraged, as this adds to the health impact.

Another worrying source of outdoor pollution, as pointed out by Brincat, is shipping. Sources of air pollution around harbours can be associated with both marine vessels and related land-based activities such as cargo handling equipment – tractors, cranes, and so on.

If environmentally-friendly practice is to be followed, then cruise ships berthed at dockside in port should be fed power from the national grid to reduce the use of more polluting fuel on board.

A new directive to limit the maximum sulphur content of fuels used in shipping is to be made law in all EU member states by April 2014. Without this directive, emissions from ships would surpass emissions from land-based sources.

Maximum sulphur content of fuels will be limited to 0.5 per cent for all ships from 2020, down from the current 3.5 per cent for cargo vessels and 1.5 per cent for passenger ships.

To its credit, the ill-fated cruise vessel Costa Crociere was one of the first vessels to carry air pollution monitoring equipment on its Mediterranean routes for the EU’s joint research council.

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