Air pollution in the UK: a "public health emergency"

By Mike Snowden, UK Programme Officer
Outdoor air pollution disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in society, including children. Government recognition of the scale of the crisis in the UK has been slow to say the least.

By now, it’s likely that you will have seen the figures in the news about the devastating effects air pollution is having throughout the country, but they are worth repeating: annually 40,000 deaths in the UK are attributable to outdoor air pollution, of which almost 9500 are in London alone.  

The pollutants that are causing such harm are particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) among others.  

What’s worse is that the pollution disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in society - those on a low income are more likely to have existing medical conditions and to live in areas where the air quality is worse.  

Recognition of the scale of this crisis has been slow but a group of cross-party MPs named it a “public health emergency” in April this year.  

The invisibility of the pollution makes it hard to understand in some ways yet as Matthew Pennycook, MP for Greenwich & Woolwich, noted earlier this month: “If there was a toxin in our water system that we knew was killing thousands of people every year, the government would be coordinating Cobra meetings every day”.  

So why is it that the government insists on dragging its feet in tackling this crisis? 

If the well-established links to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity and dementia weren’t enough, it might help the government to remind themselves of the cost to the UK economy – more than £20 billion annually. This is almost 16% of the annual NHS budget, and the air pollution crisis is adding a significant burden. 

Outdoor air pollution harms our children disproportionately. It has been shown that air pollution levels are up to 30% worse at the height of a small child or pushchair, but almost all figures for pollution ignore this.  

Breathing dirty air whilst pregnant has been shown to affect the growth of the unborn child whose lungs are significantly developed before he or she is even born. Dirty air can be linked to increased respiratory illnesses and asthma, as well as exacerbating respiratory infections – this can hamper lung function for life when it occurs in a newborn baby. 

None of this seems to have jolted our government into action and we must instead turn to the non-profit environmental law organisation Client Earth to hold them to account.  

Under the Clean Air Directive pollutants must be kept within safe levels, but under the government’s current plans they will only be brought to safe levels by 2020 or 2025 at the earliest. 

Client Earth has now won multiple victories from the High Court, the Supreme Court and the European Court of Justice to bring the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to account. The government has finally agreed to a new timetable for plans to immediately tackle our air pollution crisis (to be published by April 2017 at the latest) after the most recent High Court ruling that criticised it for its “far too leisurely” plans thus far. 

We have also now seen the Chancellor promise £1.3 billion to road projects, even though transport is responsible for 80% of nitrogen oxide emissions in roadside areas. This is in addition to the decision to support the building of another runway at Heathrow and the associated increase in pollution that this will bring.  

Although assurances have been made that air quality in the area will be brought within safe levels by the mid-2020s when the new runway is due to become operational, decisions weren't made using the real-world emissions figures of vehicles. We now know emissions to be up to 40 times higher in real-world driving conditions thanks to the “Dieselgate” scandal last year that showed many car manufacturers to be cheating laboratory emissions testing. 

We believe strongly that governments must legislate to bring this crisis under control, but also that incredible work is already being done to tackle the issue by businesses, charities, community groups - such as SustransLiftshare and Ecotricity’s Electric Highway - and by devolved administrations like the London Assembly.  

For the first time in 2017 we are running an Ashden UK Award for clean air in towns and cities and we look forward to showcasing the essential work that these organisations are carrying out to help protect us all from dirty air (whether they have government backing or not!). 

Photo: By Stefan Kühn (Own work, http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)