The UK has already breached legal air pollution limits for the entire year

| 2nd February 2018
Mask on Nelson in Trafalgar Square

A Greenpeace activist places a large face mask onto the statue of Admiral Nelson in Trafalgar Square to raise awareness of deadly air pollution. 

Greenpeace
Is Theresa May failing to protect us from an 'invisible killer'? The European Commission last Tuesday gave Britain ten days to show how it would control air pollution with the threat of legal action in the European Court of Justice. Tim Holmes reports

It’s high time we reimagined our cities so that people – not traffic – come first. Our health, our sense of community, and our wellbeing depend on it.

The UK has already breached legal air pollution limits for the entire year, researchers have confirmed. EU rules say no site can breach the legal air pollution threshold more than eighteen hours a year. But one blackspot topped this in just thirty-one days.

Emissions of more than 200 micrograms of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) per cubic metre were recorded at Brixton Road in Lambeth, London, for nineteen hours since the New Year, King’s College London air monitors found.

Campaigners said that although mayor Sadiq Khan had improved things, Londoners still faced illegal levels of toxic air, and demanded the government act.

Broken the law

“Ministers have to get a grip and show they’re serious about protecting our health”, said Simon Alcock of environmental lawyers ClientEarth. “Londoners are still breathing filthy air on a daily basis.”

Oliver Hayes, from Friends of the Earth, called air pollution an “invisible killer”, and demanded “urgent government action to quickly and drastically improve air quality”.

He added: “It’s high time we reimagined our cities so that people – not traffic – come first. Our health, our sense of community, and our wellbeing depend on it.”

Last Tuesday, the European Commission gave the UK ten days to show how it would control air pollution or face the European Court of Justice.

And on Thursday, ClientEarth took Britain’s government to the High Court for the third time, forcing the Welsh government to concede it had broken the law by producing no air quality action plan.

Final warning

The environmental lawyers found the government had backtracked on a promise to introduce Clean Air Zones in major cities and delivered no plan for forty-five Local Authority areas with illegally dirty air.

James Thornton, the chief executive of ClientEarth, said: “Even now, eight years after the original deadline for compliance, thirty-seven out of forty-three zones across the UK remain in breach of legal air pollution limits.”

In November, the National Audit Office found nearly ninety percent of Clean Air Zones in Britain still breached legal NO2 levels, and that it would take another decade to bring them down - sixteen years behind schedule.

Britain has been in breach of the EU air quality directive since 2010. Last February, the European Commission delivered a “final warning” after sixteen areas, including London, Leeds, Birmingham and Glasgow, repeatedly breached legal limits.

A February 2016 Royal College of Physicians report found air pollution caused 40,000 deaths in Britain each year, including 24,000 from Nitrogen Dioxide. In November that year, the European Environment Agency found Britain’s mortality rate from air pollution was the second-highest in Europe.

Dirtiest vehicles

Last year, the World Health Organisation found Britons were twice as likely as Americans to die from breathing toxic air. And 802 London schools and many hospitals were sited in highly polluted areas, the organisation found, “potentially putting some of society's most vulnerable people at risk”.

Nitrogen Dioxide comes from car, bus and lorry exhausts, and may help cause asthma and other throat and lung diseases. It also aggravates these conditions, causing coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing, especially among children and the elderly, meaning some sufferers end up in hospitals and emergency rooms.

Sadiq Khan last year created two Low-Emission Bus Zones, requiring cleaner bus engines in air quality blackspots. The first began in March along Putney High Street, the second in December along Brixton Road, which last year breached the annual legal limit in five days.

Friends of the Earth are demanding a vehicle scrappage scheme, the end of London road-building projects, an Ultra-Low Emissions Zone covering all of London and a network of strengthened Clean Air Zones across the UK. Government research finds these Zones, which charge drivers of the dirtiest vehicles, are the best way to control air pollution.

This Author

Tim Holmes is an 'active bystander' and also researcher, writer and editor. He tweets at @timbird84.