Air of complacency

MaggieJones2014.JPGMaggie Jones on the government’s reluctance to properly tackle the impact of pollution on public health

The latest report of the Lancet highlights the extent to which pollution is the new threat to public health – with over nine million deaths worldwide in 2015. Two thirds of those deaths are from air pollution with water pollution in a significant second place. Whilst most occur in low and middle income countries, the UK also scores highly on pollution related deaths. A debate in the Lords later this week is therefore, timely.

It is already becoming clear that air pollution in the UK is a huge public health scandal. An estimated 50,000 deaths a year result from cardio-vascular and lung disease linked to this. In addition, restricted childhood lung development and increased asthma attacks are concentrated in areas or poor air quality.

Scientists and the public are becoming more alarmed as each new piece of evidence confirms the scale of the crisis. Sadly, the only place where alarm bells are not ringing is in government where complacency perpetuates the ministerial responses. Despite being taken to court successfully (and on several occasions) by the environmental charity ClientEarth for a failure to meet clean air standards, the government continues to pass the problem down to local authorities.

Yet this strategy is patently not working. The number of councils missing the required air quality standards reached a seven year high last year and others are refusing to collect the statistics. 45 have been in persistent breach of air quality limits for years with no action taken against them.

Thankfully, Sadiq Khan is showing consistent leadership on this issue in London and other city mayors are following suit. But given the unfolding public health scandal, ministers must get a grip. We need a UK wide strategy for Clean Air Act, a targeted diesel scrappage scheme, and a ‘clean air fund’ for local authorities.

Elsewhere, water pollution is taking its toll on public health and wellbeing. Despite the efforts of the Environment Agency and others, only 36% of UK rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters are classified as ‘good’ or ‘better’ as defined in the Water Framework Directive. A World Wildlife Fund report on river pollution suggests nearly half of all rivers in England and Wales are polluted with sewage from treatment plants and overflows. Our outdated waste systems can no longer cope with demand, with a dire impact on human health, rivers and wildlife alike.

Similarly, agricultural processes such as uncontrolled spreading of slurries and manure, disposal of sheep dip and use of pesticides and fertilisers are adding to river pollution. While there is growing awareness from the farming community, we need to encourage good practice and make polluters pay for the clean-up.

Polluted rivers of course, run into our coastal waters adding to the pollution that already exists. Despite efforts to clean up the UK’s bathing water – including the impressive campaigns of Surfers against Sewage and others – the latest assessment is that 20 beaches are unsafe for swimmers. Water companies must urgently invest in new equipment and clean up their act.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove talks about banning microbeads and consulting on a bottle deposit scheme to control the plastic waste that pollutes our beaches and oceans. All of that is welcome – Labour has long been calling for these measures and would back the necessary legislation. Greater ambition is required however, if the government is truly to tackle current levels of modern pollution and help protect the health and wellbeing of children and generations to come.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords

Published 25th October 2017

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