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Air pollution now a ‘public health crisis’

Building new schools, hospitals and care homes next to air pollution hotspots should be made illegal to help reduce the tens of thousands of deaths caused by particulate pollution, according to a new report from MPs.

The Environmental Audit Committee argues air pollution is a ‘public health crisis’ causing nearly as many deaths as smoking and says that existing schools next to busy roads should also be fitted with air filtration systems.

Committee chair, Joan Walley MP, said: “Well over 1,000 schools around the country are 150 metres away from major roads. Protecting children and vulnerable people in the worst-affected areas must be made a priority by government and local authorities. Ministers must pluck up the political courage to take the potentially unpopular decisions necessary to get the most polluting vehicles off the road and encourage more people to walk, cycle or take public transport.”

She added that it is “unacceptable” that another generation of young people could have their health impaired by illegal air pollution.

“Children growing up near busy roads with high NO2 and particle emissions have stunted and impaired lung development,” she said. “There is also emerging evidence that air pollution can increase infant mortality rates, prompt pre-term births and affect cognitive performance.”

The committee calls for a national framework of Low Emission Zones (LEZ) to be set up, like the one in London, and rolled out across the country. LEZs are one of the most powerful tools that local authorities have for controlling vehicle emissions, according to the report.

London has operated a LEZ since 2008 and plans to introduce a limited ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone’ in 2020, but elsewhere in the UK few have been set up. In contrast, Germany has a national framework of over 70 LEZs.

The committee also calls on local authorities to use the existing air quality provision in the National Planning Policy Framework to ensure new schools and workplaces have adequate public transport links and be easily reached by bicycle or foot from the surrounding community to reduce the need for car journeys. It also recommends the government issue new planning guidance for local authorities and launch a national public awareness campaign.

Walley added: “New figures suggest air pollution from heavy traffic could be killing almost the same amount of people as smoking in the UK, yet the government seems unwilling to put saving lives before economic growth.”

“Low emission zones in cities could save lives, but diesel drivers who face extra charges deserve to be compensated so they can switch to less polluting vehicles. A national framework for low emission zones could save councils from having to reinvent the wheel each time by providing a template with common core features, such as a national certification scheme for vehicle emissions.”

The report also asks the government to:

  • Include legal air quality obligations in new infrastructure and road building plans;
  • Close legal loopholes that allow mechanics firms to remove engine filter from HGVs;
  • Examine fiscal measures to gradually encourage a move away from diesel vehicles;
  • Consider introducing a diesel scrappage scheme to help drivers switch to cleaner vehicles;
  • Launch an independent public inquiry to look at the required action on air pollution;
  • Apply pressure at European level to ensure effective EU legislation and 5 emission standards backed up by a robust testing regime.

Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said: “Exposure to certain air pollutants can have a devastating impact on people with heart conditions, increasing their risk of a heart attack. Yet the UK continues to flout legal air pollution limits.

“The government cannot continue to ignore this issue. We knew that air pollution was harmful to our hearts in 2011 when the last report came out. Now the evidence is even stronger.

“Enough is enough. The government must act on these recommendations quickly if we are to improve the quality of the air we breathe and protect the nation’s heart health.”

The British Lung Foundation said the recommendations "may seem drastic", but air pollution was so bad they were necessary "to protect the nation's health".

Dr Penny Wood, the charity’s chief executive, said: "Our dirty air will simply not clean itself, and this issue is one that will, without the government's intervention, continue to impact on current and future generations."

Sian Berry of the Campaign for Better Transport added: “Roads ministers need to respond urgently to the recommendations of the committee and amend the Infrastructure Bill to meet their legal obligations to reduce air pollution. They can no longer simply brush aside the effects of their road-building plans on the desperately bad air pollution we already suffer in our towns and cities.”

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said: "Clean air is vital for people's health, and while air quality has improved significantly in recent decades, we are investing heavily in measures across government to continue this, committing £2bn since 2011 in green transport initiatives.

"We continue to support local authorities in identifying the best solutions for their area and sharing best practice. Government further supports these efforts through our air quality grant scheme. We will be responding to the report fully in due course."

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Ruth   08/12/2014 at 13:27

The government has just announced £billions for new roads. When hard pressed (literally) commuters are crying out for more and improved train services, surely the evidence of this lethal air pollution from road traffic should encourage the government to think again.

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