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European Standing Committee A Debates

Levels of Certain Heavy Metals and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Ambient Air

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European Standing
Committee A

Wednesday 25 February 2004

[Mr. Kevin Hughes in the Chair]

Levels of Certain Heavy Metals and
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in
Ambient Air

2 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): The proposal that we are considering this afternoon is the fourth of what are called air quality daughter directives established under the 1996 air quality framework directive (96/62/EC). Each daughter directive deals with a different aspect of air pollution. It is worth pointing out that we supported the first three directives but do not believe that this one will have any real effect on public health in this country. I shall explain the reasoning behind that as I go through my points.

This proposal deals with four metals—arsenic, cadmium, mercury and nickel—and a group of substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are products of combustion of a variety of substances. There is a good deal less to the Commission's proposal than meets the eye. It is not the aim of the directive absolutely to control the levels of those substances in the environment. In fact, the proposal requires little more than monitoring by member states to establish the level of pollution, and the UK has been doing that since 1991.

The reason that the proposal would have little or no effect on pollution levels is that emissions of arsenic, cadmium, and nickel come primarily from sites that are subject to the requirements of the integrated pollution prevention and control directive (96/61/EC), which requires the use of ''best available techniques'' to reduce emissions to the environment, and those plants are already required to do as much as possible to reduce emissions. It is very unlikely that the requirement in the proposal to take further measures ''not entailing excessive cost'' would be required.

The main source of exposure to mercury emissions in the air is from crematoriums, specifically the amalgam in dental fillings. There are no grounds for concern about mercury emissions. We have recently consulted on emissions from crematoriums and additional controls are not required. Where polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are emitted through industrial processes, plants would also be subject to integrated pollution prevention. Again, best available techniques for reducing emissions should already be in use.

The main source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons is coal fires used for domestic heating. Coal is still used on a large scale in Northern Ireland and a few other communities where alternatives such as mains gas are not available. However, mains gas is increasingly available in Belfast, and we expect that

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that will reduce coal use there, thereby reducing the levels of PAHs in the air.

The question of whether the proposal should do more was raised by the European Scrutiny Committee. In its two reports, the Scrutiny Committee discusses the risk from this sort of pollution and asks whether the proposal should have included further controls. The Government's view is that existing measures are sufficient and that more controls are not required to protect public health.

The earlier daughter directives set limits to protect public health. They dealt with nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, particulates and several other substances. They made a contribution to improving air quality and therefore made a significant contribution to health. However, setting limits is not appropriate for the substances that we are considering today. All except mercury are carcinogens for which there is no safe level of exposure, and the approach for them must be to reduce emissions and, hence, public exposure as far as possible. We are already doing that through integrated pollution prevention and control and by making gas available as an alternative to coal for domestic heating. We already monitor for these substances in the UK around plants that could emit such pollutants and, more generally, to check public exposure. We find that levels of all these pollutants are low, with the majority below the assessment thresholds mentioned in the proposal. That gives us confidence that existing controls are succeeding. The Scrutiny Committee was right to ask the question, but I hope that such information helps to answer it and the other questions raised.

Excessive emissions from point sources would represent a failure in the integrated pollution prevention and control regime. We believe that the regime is working well in this country, although that does not mean that it is working well everywhere. In some places the directive could have an impact, but we consider the situation in the UK and implications for the UK to be satisfactory. If any problems arose, they would be better resolved by amending the system than by using the proposal as a sticking plaster.

The proposal would require extensive monitoring, which is costly. We agree that some monitoring is required—as I have said, the UK has monitored these pollutants for a decade—but we do not believe that the level proposed would be the best use of our limited resources. A level of monitoring is required that is linked more closely to the levels of pollution found and to the risk to public health.

I believe that I have set out the UK's position clearly, but, in preparing for this debate, I was struck by the Scrutiny Committee's wish for specific reassurance, so I shall respond specifically to that. The Committee wanted to be sure that the risk to public health from pollution of this sort has been successfully addressed and appeared to fear that the Commission might not have fully addressed the risks identified in the explanatory memorandum accompanying the proposal. That gives rise to a number of difficult technical issues, but I believe that we can give the reassurance that is sought.

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In its assessment, the Commission has drawn on what is known as a unit risk approach in the context of the World Health Organisation's advice on these substances. By contrast, the technical working group and the scientific committee for toxicity, ecotoxicity and environment, both of which are referred to in the Commission's explanatory memorandum, consider the unit risk approach to be over-protective and in some cases unrealistic. That view seems to have influenced the Commission in making recommendations for specific measures. The Commission also seems to have been rightly concerned about the cost of measures to achieve the protection required by a unit risk approach.

The UK broadly shares the Commission's conclusion. The Department of Health's independent expert committee on carcinogenicity of chemicals in food, consumer products and the environment considered the unit risk approach and found that the assumptions used in calculating unit risk cannot be proved to be accurate, so it does not support that approach.

We must also consider the costs of setting overly stringent objectives. The advice that I have received is that the integrated pollution prevention and control regime goes as far as necessary to protect human health from emissions from industrial plants. To go beyond that would lead to significant costs, and I am not convinced that it would be worthwhile expenditure.

I want to make one other point specifically about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, where we are dealing mainly with diffuse sources of pollution. My Department's expert panel on air quality standards recommended a much more ambitious standard for PAHs of 0.25 nanograms per cubic metre, compared to 1 nanogram in the Commission's proposal. This more stringent standard has been adopted in the UK air quality strategy. We are aware of the risk from PAHs: we already measure them and have national standards and objectives in place for them. Therefore, we can be confident that we are doing everything that the directive requires, and more, to achieve the necessary standards for the protection of human health.

I hope that I have addressed all the issues raised by the Select Committee and have thus informed hon. Members' considerations for this debate. I should have said at the outset, Mr. Hughes, that this is the first time that I have sat under your chairmanship. I regard it as something of an achievement to have reached the end of my introduction without having to be disciplined by you in any way.

The Chairman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. We have until 3 o'clock at the latest for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and should be asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for hon. Members to ask several questions.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I, too, have not sat previously under your chairmanship, Mr. Hughes, nor do I remember the Minister, whom I have faced on many subjects, having ever achieved the feat

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of delivering his brief without interruption from the Chair. Therefore, I congratulate him. We want to ask him a number of questions on this important European matter.

The European Scrutiny Committee concluded that

    ''the Commission has sought in a largely unstructured way to assess the very different risks arising from a number of different substances, and then to draw a range of different conclusions based upon assessments carried out by different bodies''.

It refers to different risks, arising from different substances, and to different conclusions carried out by different bodies. Does the Minister accept that conclusion and, if so, why is he not calling for a more coherent and structured risk assessment of the impact of heavy metals and PAHs in ambient air before he implements proposals that may not be entirely reliable?

Alun Michael: By and large, I accept that assessment. The comments made by the Scrutiny Committee were helpful. In my introductory remarks, I hope that I set out why we have reached conclusions that are the same as those reached by the Commission in its proposals. It is fair to say that our approach, which I explained in my initial statement, is coherent, structured and shows that we have considered the assessment in a way that gives the assurance that we need.

The reason that we can have confidence in that work is that it has been undertaken in the UK—not just in relation to this daughter directive—to achieve the protections and improvement in air quality that have been pursued by successive Governments since the 1991 implementation of monitoring. We have a considerable body of information on which to operate, so we can have confidence in the assessment that is being made by our officials and scientists. We may be heading towards the same conclusions as the Commission, but in a manner on which we can depend.


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Prepared 25 February 2004