Under the Air Quality Directive, EU members will have to meet targets limiting the amount of PM2.5 particles, which are the most damaging to lungs.

MEPs hammered out a deal with the Council to set an initial target of 25 micrograms per cubic metre of air by 2015 and a second target of 20 micrograms by January 1 2020, which will be reviewed by the European Commission in 2013.

Parliament said the targets aimed to minimise the harmful effects of air pollutants on human health, and the Directive will make special efforts to protect at-risk groups such as children.

However the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) accused MEPs of creating more confusion and said the 25 microgram target would not lead to a meaningful reduction of pollution.

Secretary-general John Hontelez said: “Initially this Directive was proposed to simplify existing air quality laws.

“It is ironic and sad that now it contains three different kinds of new exemptions, including how and when limits for harmful particulate matter apply and what counts as pollution.”

The Parliament also accepted the Council’s target to reduce PM10 particles to 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air, although no precise date for reaching this level was agreed.

Daily limits of 50 micrograms will also continue to be placed on PM10s and must not be exceeded more than 35 times a year.

However, individual areas or cities within EU members states which do not meet the targets could be granted a three-year exemption if they can prove their efforts were hampered by factors such as the characteristics of the area or climatic conditions.

The EEB raised concerns that the three-year extension could provide a “blank cheque for polluters”.

Kate Martin

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