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 (2005-2019), emissions have continued to fall, with declines reported in most Member States: hexachlorobenzene by 50%, polychlorinated biphenyls by 44%, dioxins and furans by 37%, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons by 19%. 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 (UNECE, 2021a, 2021b). 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 2019, emissions of dioxins and furans, HCB, PCBs and PAHs decreased overall, by 37%, 50%, 44% and 19%, 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 67% of PCB, and almost 19% of dioxins and furans as well as HCB emissions in 2019. The commercial, institutional and household sector is also a significant source of POPs, accounting for 81% of PAH, 43% of dioxins and furans, and 22% of HCB emissions in 2019 (EEA, 2021a). In addition, the agricultural sector accounted for 38% of HCB emissions in 2019.

POP emissions fell in most Member States between 2005 and 2019, 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 (EEA, 2021a).

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

In 2019, Poland accounted for the largest proportion of the EU’s dioxins and furans (16.0%) and PAH (26.6%) emissions, with France and Finland accounting for most HCB (17.5% and 13.3% respectively) emissions (EEA, 2021a). Croatia accounted for most PCB (32.4%) emissions, mainly as a result of legacy use; little progress has been made in reducing PCB emissions in Croatia since 2005.

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