UK Government 'misleading' public on air pollution

| 2nd September 2009
Low emission zone sign in London
Innovative ideas like low-emission zones need to be backed up by more effective regulation, says the report
UK ranked amongst the worst polluters in Europe for airborne particles and nitrogen dioxide

Defra has come in for damning criticism for failing to tackle air pollution in a report published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS).

The UK has repeatedly failed to meet EU air pollution targets over past decade, according to the report. This is despite the estimated 24,000 people who die prematurely every year in Britain because of air pollution.

Earlier this year the EU lost patience and began taking legal action against UK for repeatedly breaching pollution levels.

This follows a previous EU action against UK in 2007 for exceeding sulphur dioxide limits - an pollutant that can cause respiratory problems and aggravate cardiovascular disease.

Polluted cities

According to the CCJS report, Crime is in the air: air pollution and regulation in the UK, more than 20 towns and cities have been found to be emitting pollution at twice the level specified in WHO standards.

'It is estimated that twice as many people today suffer from lung disease and asthmatic conditions caused by air pollution than they did 20 years ago,' said the report.

Defra criticism

The report criticises Defra, the department responsible for publishing air quality statistics, for both underestimating the health dangers of air pollution and trying to 'manipulate' statistics.

'There is an unhelpful and misleading language that underestimates the seriousness of exposure to air pollution: for example, comments such as ‘long-term exposure to even low levels of particulates (PM10) may have a significant effect on public health’.

'There is no ‘may’ about it. The use of this defensive terminology serves to neutralise criticism of bland and unflattering government statistics,' said the report.

It also criticised Defra for releasing its January 2009 update on air quality the same day as the EU Commission announced its intention to act against the UK for failing to tackle air pollution levels.


The report calls for stronger regulation:
'The penalties imposed for operators' breaching permits are minor in comparison to corporate profits,' it said.

It adds that the public should be made more aware of the problem by the viewing air pollution offences as eco-crimes.

'At present, corporations are seen as partners who exceed air pollution levels, rather than eco-criminals,' it said.

What's in our air?

   Sulphur dioxide Created through the combustion of fossil fuels that contain sulphur compounds. Can  contribute to various lung conditions even at moderate levels of concentration
Toxic organic micropollutants (TOMPS) Very dangerous compounds emitted from smokestacks and vehicles. Carcinogenic chemicals such as dioxins, furans, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls in small amounts are highly deleterious to humans and animals, and have been linked to cancer, lung disease, immune deficiency and cerebral dysfunction in young children
Fine particles Dusts, sulphates and nitrates from sources such as road traffic and atmospheric reactions. Fine particles can be carcinogenic and are able to pass through the lungs into the bloodstream, causing inflammation as well as more serious conditions
Butadiene A chemical released in the atmosphere by burning rubber and synthetics, and the emissions from petrol and diesel operated machinery. Butiadiene is thought to be responsible for a range of human health problems including birth defects, organ damage and reproductive disorders

Carbon monoxide
A poisonous gas produced by petrol engines. Damages respiratory and circulatory body functions. Reduces oxygen supply to major organs including the heart

Lead and heavy metals
Industrial areas emitting smoke and vapour waste create extremely dangerous lead compounds that can damage the neural and organ development of infants and young children as well as cause foetal deformities. This form of highly dangerous industrial pollution has also been linked to mental, neurological and visual problems
Ozone and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) VOCs react with sunlight and nitrous oxide to create vapour that is capable of travelling thousands of miles. It causes damage to the natural environment as well as having the potential to exacerbate human health conditions such as asthma and lung disease
Nitrous oxides Found in vehicle and smokestack exhaust. Nitrous oxides compromise lung functions and can cause respiratory and viral illness, notably in children

This list is adapted from the UK’s National Air Quality Archive

Useful links

Crime is in the air: air pollution and regulation in the UK
Campaign for Clean Air in London

See also

More from this author


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