Deep breaths

WinstonRobert4x3.jpgRobert Winston says it’s time for Britain to tackle the health risks caused by air pollution

Air pollution remains a major environmental and health problem in the UK. High concentrations of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone are causing real harm to human health. In urban areas, people are being exposed to levels of pollution above the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines. This is resulting in almost 29,000 premature deaths each year, increased hospital admissions, extra expenditure on medication, and the loss of millions of working days.

In May, the Supreme Court found the UK in breach of obligations to reduce air pollution, raising a possible legal challenge by the EU Commission. On the current trajectory, London is set to have illegal levels of pollution until 2025, and last year the London Assembly identified this as the cause of 9% of early deaths in the capital. Yet the Coalition government has announced intentions to remove the requirement on councils to monitor local air quality.

Motor vehicles are of course a significant source of the problem. Adverse effects on health due to proximity to roads have been observed after adjusting for socioeconomic status and noise. Exhaust emissions are clearly central to this, but toxicology research shows road abrasion, and tyre and brake wear also having an impact. 

Moreover, air pollution is having a major impact on UK finances, with the health costs estimated between £8bn and £20bn each year. It also damages crops, nature and biodiversity, with the deposition of acidifying and eutrophying substances still exceeding the critical loads of sensitive ecosystems over large areas.

In January 2013, WHO concluded that since 2005 considerable amounts of scientific evidence confirm its Air Quality Guidelines. Worse still, this evidence shows that damaging effects are occurring at levels lower than the 2005 guidelines. The range of health impacts also appear to be much broader than previously thought, with links now being established to neurodevelopment and cognitive function, as well as diabetes.

Despite all of this, UK government policy has been characterised by delays and missed opportunities. And last year, the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee was highly critical of the Coalition’s response.

The current ‘Year of Air’ gives Ministers a chance to make things right. A package of proposals is expected from the EU Commission in September, with three priority actions that could put us back on track towards a healthy environment. We need to adopt ambitious emission reduction commitments, both for existing and ‘new’ pollutants. We also need to abide by legislation to cut emissions from all major sources, especially diesel vehicles in urban areas. And above all, we must enforce and strengthen air quality values.

Perhaps then, people in London and our other major cities can breathe a bit more easily as they go about their business.

Lord Robert Winston is Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College, London a backbench Labour Peer

Published 22nd July 2013

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