The European Union may soon consider raising the bar on air quality requirements affecting diesel engines, after publication of a new report from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The report claims evidence of a link between fine particulate matter and a range of health issues including atherosclerosis, respiratory disease, diabetes and even cardiovascular problems.

Its findings are “a wake-up call to tighten up enforcement of air quality rules and consider revising these standards”, according to Matthias Groote, chair of the European Parliament environment committee.

The links between air pollution and health found by the WHO “reinforce the case for scaling up our policy,” added Janez Potočnik, EU commissioner for the environment.

Research suggests that over 80% of Europeans are exposed to particulate matter levels above the 2005 WHO air quality guidelines, depriving each citizen of more than eight months of life.

Road traffic has been identified a major contributor of particulate matter, alongside household heating systems and industrial activities.

Christopher Snelling, FTA head of urban logistics and regional policy, agreed the report was likely to lead to greater pressure for lower vehicle emissions limits and more or tighter low emission zones, but added that the EC should not be concentrating all its efforts on simply reducing emissions from diesel engines.

“There’s a rule of diminishing returns,” he said. “There’s only so much you can do with a diesel engine. And we’d be looking for some support as well – what they need to do is enable industry to use cleaner alternatives by helping to create those alternatives.”

It also makes little sense to treat particulate matter emissions from transport as a separate issue to carbon emissions, said Snelling.

“There’s no point in taking a pure air quality approach if stricter limits on local [particulate matter] emissions increase the amount of carbon being put out and we’re also being told to reduce the amount of carbon,” he said.