European Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik told a clean air conference in Brussels Monday member states aren't doing enough to honor commitments to cut noxious air emissions, resulting in the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
"We are still far from our objective to achieve levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on human health and the environment," he said.
"The figures are simply not acceptable. Our latest analysis estimates 420,000 premature deaths from air pollution in the EU in 2010."
It was time, Potocnik said, to "recognize that some of the EU air quality standards that were established in the late '90s are not being respected" by member states, despite being given extra time and flexibility to implement them.
"This has led to a situation where the majority of member states are infringing EU law on air quality" the commissioner said. "As a consequence, the health of many people is suffering and costs to the health suppliers and the economy are rising."
Potocnik was speaking at a conference hosted by the non-governmental organization European Environmental Bureau to launch the "European Year of Air," which coincided with the release of a Eurobarometer poll indicating strong public backing for tighter air quality standards.
In the EU-backed poll, 25,525 residents across all member states aged 15 and above were interviewed by telephone in late September and asked their opinions on air quality.
The research indicated that almost four out of five participants (79 percent) said the European Union should propose additional measures to address air pollution.
Of those who said they were aware of EU air quality standards and their own national emission ceilings, 58 percent said they should be strengthened.
The results of the survey were to be used in an ongoing review on EU air policy by the commission, which is due for the second half of 2013.
One focus of the review will be on "ensuring compliance" with existing laws "as soon as possible," especially zeroing in on the sources of pollution, mainly linked to traffic.
It put an emphasis on "strengthening effective enforcement" and reducing trans-boundary pollution.
Potocnik said tackling mobile sources of pollution will require "new, innovative" ways of thinking.
"For instance, if we want to encourage so-called super low-emitting vehicles, as the U.S. is already doing, we might look for such an EU 'SULEV-type benchmark' that member states can use when introducing differentiated fees for hotspot areas, or tax incentives for faster fleet turnover."
That same approach, he said, could be extended to other products, such as domestic stoves and boilers, and to standardize the retrofitting of some of the most polluting vehicles in urban areas.
Other attendees at the conference also criticized member states for their "inaction" on improving air quality, the EU news website EurActiv.com reported.
Christer Agren, the director of the Swedish environmental group AirClim, said EU states were showing a "lack of ambition" in curbing the spread of such noxious gases as nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, anhydrous ammonia and fine particulate matter.
He said 12 countries had failed to meet the European Union's 2010 national ceilings for nitrous oxide emissions with three failing to measure up to standards for volatile organic compounds or anhydrous ammonia, the website reported.