Air quality in the European Union remains below some World Health Organization standards, increasing the risk of premature deaths and environmental damage, the European Environmental Agency (EEA) said in a report Wednesday.
Air pollutants, including particles and ozone, lead to 500,000 premature deaths a year in the EU and neighboring countries, as well as a loss of biodiversity.
While overall levels of air pollutants have declined, the EEA report found they are highly concentrated in some cases.
More than 95 per cent of the EU urban population is exposed to ground-level ozone levels exceeding WHO guidelines, and 80-90 per cent of the same group are overexposed to particulate matter, both of which are linked to cardiovascular and lung disease.
"Europe's air quality is generally getting better, but concentrations of some pollutants are still endangering people's health," said EEA executive director Jacqueline McGlade in a statement.
In 2020, EU estimates indicate that air pollutants will cost 537 billion euros (S$942 billion) in human health terms as well as ecosystem and agriculture damage, such as acidification, eutrophication and ozone impact on vegetation.
Several member states have failed to comply with EU air quality legislation and are facing legal action from the European Commission. If found guilty of infringing EU law, member states would be handed financial penalties.
"We are not keen on issuing penalties," said a European Commission air quality expert at a presentation of the EEA report to the European Parliament. "We would prefer the money is used to make changes on the ground."
Court action has forced the hand of local, regional and national levels of EU governments to work together more closely to reduce air pollutants.
The EU plans to review EU air quality legislation in 2013, and evidence already suggests stricter standards are needed.
However, given the resistance from EU member states over the enforcement of current legislation, some question whether stronger measures would be feasible.