Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) bioaccumulate and harm human health. Targeted EU legislation, in line with commitments under the UNECE Air Convention, led to marked POP reductions from 1990. In recent years (2005-2021), emissions have continued to fall, with declines reported in most Member States: hexachlorobenzene by 49%, polychlorinated biphenyls by 53%, dioxins and furans by 43%, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons by 15%. The most significant POP sources are the ‘commercial, institutional and households’ and ‘industrial processes and product use’ sectors.

Figure 1. Emissions of persistent organic air pollutants in the 27 EU Member States, 2005-2021
Emissions of persistent organic air pollutants in the 27 EU Member States, 2005-2021

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including polychlorinated dibenzo para dioxins (PCDDs; dioxins) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs; furans), hexachlorobenzene (HCB), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are directly toxic to human health, animals and plants. These bioaccumulative compounds are of particular concern because of their possible carcinogenic, immunological and reproductive effects, and their potential impact on human development. Eliminating POPs is therefore a key goal of environmental action at EU and international levels.

The EU is a party to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Air Convention. The Air Convention’s 1998 Aarhus Protocol on Persistent Organic Pollutants obliges parties to reduce emissions of certain POPs and has banned or restricted the use of some compounds . In 2001, the Stockholm Convention was adopted, building on the Aarhus Protocol to take action on POPs at the international level.

Improvements in abatement technologies and targeted EU legislation — for instance the Community strategy for dioxins and furans (PCDDs and PCDFs) and PCBs , the Persistent Organic Pollutants Regulation and the Industrial Emissions Directive (EU, 2010) — have contributed to marked reductions in POP emissions in the EU since 1990.

In 2009, the Aarhus Protocol and the Stockholm Convention were amended to cover additional compounds and introduce emission limit values for waste incineration. Moreover, in 2016, the EU’s National Emissions reduction Commitments Directive (NECD) was amended to include new reporting requirements for Member States, including the requirement to provide annual inventories of POP emissions.

Between 2005 and 2021, emissions of dioxins and furans, HCB, PCBs and PAHs decreased by 43%, 49%, 53% and 15%, respectively, with particularly notable declines in the industrial processes and product use, energy production and distribution, and waste sectors. However, the industrial processes and product use sector remains a significant source of POPs, accounting for 51% of PCBs, and almost 19% of dioxins and furans as well as 13% of HCB emissions in 2021. The commercial, institutional and household sector is also a significant source of POPs, accounting for 77% of PAH, 45% of dioxins and furans, and 21% of HCB emissions in 2021. In addition, the agricultural sector accounted for 11% of HCB emissions in 2021.

Figure 2. Persistent organic pollutant emissions in the EU-27 Member States, by country, 2005-2021
Persistent organic pollutant emissions in the EU-27 Member States, by country, 2005-2021

POP emissions fell in most Member States between 2005 and 2021, contributing to the improving situation across the EU. This is in part the result of the implementation of national POP legislation, with Spain, for instance, reporting that declines in HCB emissions were due to the adoption of a national regulation in line with the Stockholm Convention.

Increases in POP emissions were reported by some countries, however, most notably the exceptionally large increases in HCB and PCBs emissions in Malta, and relatively large increases in emissions of PCBs in Greece and HCB in Cyprus, France, Latvia and Luxembourg. In some cases, this may reflect reporting anomalies (Malta) rather than increases in emissions, or relatively small increases in absolute emissions from very low baseline levels.

In 2021, Poland accounted for the largest proportion of the EU’s dioxins and furans (16.1%) and PAH (32.1%) emissions, with France and Finland accounting for most HCB (16.3% and 15.6% respectively) emissions. Croatia accounted for most PCBs (33.8%) emissions, mainly as a result of legacy use; little progress has been made in reducing PCBs emissions in Croatia since 2005.