The European Commission is coming under increasing pressure to accelerate legal action against national governments that are failing to tackle air pollution.

European law sets minimum standards for the quality of air in cities and towns across the continent but limits are being broken in at least 130 cities in 23 countries, exposing European citizens to health-harming emissions that are particularly damaging to the most vulnerable in society: children and the elderly.

The extent of the breaches has been described as a health crisis by campaigners, who are calling on the European Commission to speed up action against national governments that are failing to respect EU law.

Margherita Tolotto, Air Pollution Policy Officer at the EEB, explained the problem and said that while national governments were to blame for inaction, the Commission could be responding more quickly:

“People breathing filthy air all over Europe are being let down by their governments. The Commission must accelerate efforts to ensure EU law is respected and our health is protected from harmful pollution.”

Following reports in the German press, there was a wide expectation among health and environmental groups that the Commission would take advantage of its last infringement proceedings announcement of the year to take on countries failing to clean up their dirty air.

So-called ‘infringement actions’ are the legal steps the Commission can take against Member States that are failing to respect EU law. A list of these actions was released this morning, but it lacked any action to tackle air pollution breaches anywhere in Europe.

Tolotto said she was disappointed by this delay:

“It’s now been years since the Commission first launched its action and ten months since reaching the ‘final step’ before heading to court.”

In February, the Commission released a ‘reasoned opinion’ about five countries that are consistently breaching maximum concentration levels for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) on city streets.

A ‘reasoned opinion’ is the final step of the infringement process before the Commission formally takes a Member State to the European courts.

France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK have all been breaching EU air quality laws for a number of years and were singled out by the Commission earlier this year.

According to the European Environmental Agency, NO2 pollution is responsible for 75,000 premature deaths in the EU, 9,300 in France, 12,860 in Germany 17,290 in Italy, 6,740 in Spain and 14,050 in the UK every year.

Despite widespread failures to meet the legal limits, campaigners say that the Commission has been slow to take national governments to court to force them to take action.

So far only Bulgaria has been found guilty of having failed to act quickly enough to clean up its toxic air.

The Commission’s reluctance to push through infringement proceedings stands in stark contrast to its rhetoric at the ‘Clean Air Forum’ event, which it organised and hosted in Paris last month.

The mayors of Paris and other major European cities have taken strong stances on air pollution. But action at local and European level is yet to be sufficiently matched by national governments, which have been criticized for watering down European air quality rules during negotiations in Brussels.