Press release: 22 September 2021

“Wake-up call” for EU governments as WHO drastically tightens its pollution guidelines - ClientEarth

Environmental lawyers at ClientEarth have said EU governments should be “scrambling to act” after the World Health Organization (WHO) published its new guidelines on air pollution today.

The WHO is proposing drastic changes to its previous recommendations reflecting scientific evidence on the threat air pollution poses to human health. The scientific body has slashed its original recommendations for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Environmental law charity ClientEarth, which has consistently called for governments to align with WHO recommendations, warns that the gap between WHO limits and legal limits in the EU is only getting wider:

  • For PM5, EU legal limits are now 5 times higher than WHO recommendations.
  • For NO2, EU legal limits are now 4 times higher than WHO recommendations.

These legal limits are frequently or even systematically exceeded, meaning citizens are exposed to toxic pollution far above what we know to be acceptable.

ClientEarth’s head of clean air Ugo Taddei said: “These new guidelines reflect the best available science and the conclusion is irrefutable: air pollution, even at levels lower than previously thought, seriously endangers people’s health and action needs to be taken. When facing court action, governments won’t be able to feign ignorance on air pollution anymore.

“Clean and healthy air is a fundamental right and EU laws should be fit to protect individuals. The Commission is now looking to reform EU air quality standards and these new WHO recommendations must absolutely be reflected in legislation. The revision of the Air Quality Directive is a once-in-a generation opportunity to ensure people in the EU don’t have to breathe harmful levels of air pollution for years to come.

“This must serve as a wake-up call for governments across Europe – they need to do everything in their power to reduce pollution. National governments should be scrambling to act on these new guidelines. They need to listen to the science and take steps to reflect these new standards in law.”


Notes to editors:

WHO guidelines are the most authoritative scientific reference to help policymakers across the world in setting standards and goals for air quality management.

The WHO recommends that the concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) not exceed an annual mean concentration of 5 µg/m3 and10 µg/m3 respectively. Previous guidelines were set at 10 µg/m3 for PM2.5 and 40 µg/m3 for NO2.

Air pollution is the main environmental risk factor for human health in Europe. According to the European Environment Agency, in 2018, exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in Europe was responsible for more than 415,000 premature deaths.

As part of the EU Green Deal, the Commission announced in 2019 the intention to revise air quality standards to align them more closely with the WHO recommendations, which it later confirmed in its Zero Pollution Action Plan. In December 2020, the Commission published the roadmap for the Revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directives, with a proposal for revised legislation expected in Q3 2022.

In a resolution adopted in March 2021, the European Parliament called on the Commission to fully align EU air quality standards with WHO guidelines.

ClientEarth has taken legal action in 11 Member States over governments’ failure to protect people from toxic air.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.