Air pollution death toll could hit 50,000 a year, say MPs

London traffic

Experts say diesel engines are responsible for poor air quality in London and other UK cities

UK’s poor air quality is a bigger killer than passive smoking, road traffic accidents and obesity says parliamentary committee

MPs have today delivered a damning assessment of the Government’s performance on tackling air quality issues.

Poor air quality reduces average life expectancy in the UK by an average of seven to eight months and it could lead to up to 50,000 premature deaths every year, according to a report released today by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

The MPs said that the UK should be ‘ashamed’ of its air quality and called for dramatic changes to be made to the UK’s transport policy in order to improve the situation.

The report said failing to act would result in EU fines, which could total as much as £300 million pounds. 

Political 'blame game'

London was singled out for its continuing failure to meet targets on airborne particles known as PM10, which are particularly harmful for asthma sufferers. 

‘Nearly a third of asthma sufferers say that a reduction in air pollution is the single thing that would improve their quality of life in relation to their asthma,’ said a spokesperson for Asthma UK. 

Experts pinned this lack of effective action in the capital on a ‘blame game’ between different levels of Government. Londoners now breathe the worst air in Europe, said Alan Andrews, a lawyer at Client Earth.

‘The Mayor is blaming national government for the failure and the Government is pointing the finger at the Mayor,’ he said. 

‘There is inertia in Government on this issue: the health impacts and costs of EU sanctions aren’t being factored into decision making,’ he added.

Andrews called on the Government set up a national scheme for Low Emissions Zones, promote moves towards electrification and do more to combat ‘dirty diesel engines’ in taxis. 

Technology failing lungs

The other main source of air pollution highlighted in the report was nitrogen dioxide, which at times exceeds EU limits by 200 - 300 per cent on busy roads, according to Dr. Gary Fuller from The London Air Quality Network at King’s College London.

‘Technological measures are not yielding the necessary results: policy makers need to look at other alternatives which include changing demand for travel,’ said Fuller. 

The EAC report did not specifically mention air transport but scientists and campaigners have highlighted the area around Heathrow airport as an air pollution hotspot.

‘Any third runway at Heathrow is going to make meeting European limits on nitrogen dioxide impossible,’ said Andrews. 

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