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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's executive has agreed to delay new laws forcing industry to take costly steps to tackle air pollutants that are blamed for respiratory problems and premature deaths in cities.
Most soot particles or airborne acid pollution comes from diesel cars, ships and power stations.
No action is seen until 2012 or 2013 when a whole string of related legislation can be overhauled simultaneously, a source at the European Commission, which initiates EU law, said on Wednesday.
The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a federation of 140 European groups, criticised the decision.
"We see no excuse for delaying a revision any further," said EEB air policy officer Louise Duprez. "If they are suggesting it will be pushed back until 2013 we will see a huge cost in terms of human health and environment."
The EEB estimates that air pollution by fine soot particles alone causes 455,000 premature deaths in the EU each year.
The European Commission's 27 commissioners -- one from each EU member state -- debated the issue of air quality on Tuesday and agreed to review the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive, which caps airborne pollutants in each country.
"Air pollution continues to cause damage to people and environment: premature deaths, shorter life expectancy, as well as substantial damage to ecosystems, crops and buildings," Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said in a statement.
"These are real losses for our economy, productivity of our workforce and our nature."
Tackling air pollutants by revising the NEC directive could benefit the EU economy by as much as 70 billion euros ($94 billion) a year -- as much as 50 times the cost of doing so, according to 2008 research conducted for the European Commission.
Nevertheless, action is a long way off, and even Europe's existing air quality laws are widely flouted.
Seven member countries look set to overshoot their targets under the existing NEC directive, and 20 face the prospect of penalties for failing to curb dangerous soot particles under the EU's Air Quality Directive, Potocnik's spokesman said.
Potocnik said that while the NEC directive has been due for revision for some time, the Commission had decided a 'stand alone' revision would be less useful than an overhaul in a few years in tandem with laws on energy, transport and agriculture.
The delay follows a decision by the EU's 27 governments last June to allow power companies to keep running their dirtiest coal plants for another 14 years without filtering out those same emissions that also cause acid rain.
Reporting by Pete Harrison; editing by Keiron Henderson