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More than unsafe

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Jun 15, 1999 | From the print edition
Safe ozone levels are often exceeded in Europe, says a study

according to findings of a study commissioned by the European Union ( eu), E uropeans are constantly being exposed to unsafe amounts of ground-level ozone. "The threshold set for the protection of human health is exceeded substantially and in all member states," reported the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency ( eea ), which provides the data on which eu environmental legislation is based.

More than 90 per cent of all eu citizens were exposed to ozone levels above the limits recommended by the World Health Organisation at least once in 1995, the eea said. The report concentrates on the period 1994 to 1996 -- the first phase of the eu ozone-monitoring programme. Experts believe that increase in ozone levels may be due to the high number of vehicles that run on diesel in Europe.

While some countries have managed to reduce emissions of the gases that cause ozone formation, they are unlikely to meet targets for further cuts of approximately 20 per cent before the year 2000, the report added. Under the terms of an eu environmental action programme, emissions of volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen from industry and transport were to be reduced by 30 per cent from 1990 levels by the year 2000.

The agency estimated that at least 700 people in the eu were admitted to hospital in 1995 with problems linked to ozone and that approximately 3,000 more patients were affected by the gas. "Other health effects, such as respiratory symptoms or short term changes in mortality rates, could also result from ozone exposure in Europe," the report warned, although it said that more research is needed to verify this.

Ozone has also had a major negative impact on crops and vegetation, the eea said. Crop-protection limits were broken substantially and frequently in both 1994 and 1995, with only Finland managing a level below the "critical" threshold for crops. This could reduce productivity for certain crops and threaten the very existence of some plant species in some regions, the agency warned.

The report has also recommended improvements to the eu system for monitoring ozone levels, so that the data could be more representative of conditions throughout the eu .

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