Persistent organic pollutant emissions in Europe

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 (2005-2020), emissions have continued to fall, with declines reported in most Member States: hexachlorobenzene by 64%, polychlorinated biphenyls by 50%, dioxins and furans by 49%, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons by 21%. The most significant POP sources are the ‘commercial, institutional and households’ and ‘industrial processes and product use’ sectors.

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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 biota. These bioaccumulative compounds are of particular concern because of their possible carcinogenic, immunological and reproductive effects, and 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 (renamed in 2020; previously the UNECE Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP)). 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 Large Combustion Plant Directive, the Community strategy for dioxins and furans (PCDDs and PCDFs) and PCBs , the Persistent Organic Pollutants Regulation and the Industrial Emissions Directive (2010/75/EU) — 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 information on POP emissions.

Between 2005 and 2020, emissions of dioxins and furans, HCB, PCBs and PAHs decreased overall, by 49%, 64%, 50% and 21%, 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 65% of PCBs, and almost 17% of dioxins and furans as well as HCB emissions in 2020. The commercial, institutional and household sector is also a significant source of POPs, accounting for 84% of PAH, 41% of dioxins and furans, and 23% of HCB emissions in 2020. In addition, the agricultural sector accounted for 26% of HCB emissions in 2020.

POP emissions fell in most Member States between 2005 and 2020, 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 the 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 low baseline levels.

In 2020, Poland accounted for the largest proportion of the EU’s dioxins and furans (16.10%) 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.

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