Expert round: Lorenz, Rosenkranz, Krahmer, Prof. Wichmann
The discussion continues

Fine dust in Munich – Is it making us ill?

Second Dialogue forum “The risks of living in Munich – Perceived and actual” held at the Bavarian State Library on 5 October 2006

The organisers (GSF – National Research Center for Environment and Health and the Munich Re Foundation) could scarcely have wished to have a more topical subject for their second dialogue forum on the risks of living in Munich. That same morning, the World Health Organization (WHO) had published a press release on its new guidelines for air pollutants such as fine dust, ozone and sulphur dioxide. A fitting prelude to the evening’s discussion on “Fine dust in Munich – Is it making us ill”, attended by scientists, politicians and environmentalists and an audience of some 80 local people.

Ultra-fine dust particles are particularly hazardous

Fine dust has a maximum diameter of 10 μm (10 micrometres; PM10). A subgroup consisting of extremely small particles with a maximum diameter of 2.5 μm (PM2.5) is considered particularly hazardous to health. According to EU estimates, PM2.5 reduces statistical life expectancy in the EU by around nine months. Worldwide, some two million people die prematurely from the effects of air pollution, half of them in the developing countries.

New proposals on air quality by the EU Parliament will also have to measure up to the WHO’s new guidelines which, for the first time, apply worldwide. Published in September 2006, the EU proposals fall far short of the WHO’s criteria. Furthermore, the EU advocates an increase in the number of days on which concentration limits can be exceeded from the current 35 to 55 per year. At the same time, although at present there are no EU limit values for PM2.5, stricter limits apply in the United States as of October 2006.

Concentration limits and corresponding measures spark controversy

Prof. H.-Erich Wichmann, Director of the GSF’s Institute of Epidemiology, stressed that “Given the hazardous nature of fine dust, every single reduction counts!” He called for strict PM2.5 thresholds together with long-term and medium-term exposure limits for PM10. Professor Wichmann was against the EU Parliament’s proposal to take a flexible line on short-term limits. Diesel particulate filters were a sensible measure and we also needed to reduce traffic volumes in densely populated areas.

Gerd Rosenkranz (Deutsche Umwelthilfe) criticised the EU Parliament, saying that the latest proposals amounted to an attack on fine dust threshold values and not on the dust itself. “With three times as many people dying in Germany from fine dust as from traffic accidents, we have not solved the key issue.” He also stressed the need to fit diesel particle filters, above all on older vehicles, and called for the introduction of an inner-city toll.

Holger Krahmer, a Member of the European Parliament, countered that isolated measures had little effect. We should aim to “strike a social balance between the different measures” and stop playing the “industry-versus-mankind-and-environment game”. He defended the EU’s proposals and the increase in short-term limit values, maintaining that they reflected the reality of the situation in Germany’s cities and brought clarity and flexibility to the issue.

Joachim Lorenz, Head of the City of Munich’s Department of Health and Environment (RGU), described the EU Parliament’s new proposals as mere rhetoric. “We can only achieve our objectives by maintaining the pressure”, he said, also making an urgent plea for the introduction of PM2.5 limits in the EU.

Fine dust is not just a local issue

The experts’ differences were reflected in the comments of the audience. “Is Munich tackling its traffic problems at the expense of the surrounding areas?” “To what extent do ammonia emissions from agricultural sources contribute to fine dust?” Questions like these showed that the fine dust issue is not confined to the city itself. The debate on air pollutants is set to become even more impassioned when sulphur dioxide limits are introduced in 2010. The consensus of opinion was that pollution was an acute environmental concern not only in Munich but everywhere.