(A version of this article was published in The House magazine on 03/02/2020)
The new year may have blown in a new decade with a new Parliament, but the same health problems hang in the air.
The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the European Heart Review note that 62,000 early deaths each year in the UK are due to air pollution – that’s over 200 a day; while a study published by Centre for Cities last week found that air pollution deaths are 25 times higher than the national rate of deaths from traffic accidents.
Localised data shows this public health issue stretches to all corners of the UK, with one in 19 deaths linked to air pollution, yet still the Government resists setting legal targets, funding green transport and investing in air pollution monitoring.
The Environment Bill’s glaring omission of legal limits for many damaging pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5 – the smallest and most damaging particulate emissions – must be updated if the bill is to tackle the problem.
Last year the Government accepted that implementing World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for air pollution by 2030 was “technically feasible”. We need staged targets in law and an enforcement agency to deliver fines if they are not met that can help fund the billions spent by the NHS on air pollution-related illnesses, alongside investments which improve air quality.
To reach these targets, the Government must join China, India and Ireland in banning the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2030 and maintain grants for electric cars in the Budget.
New research published by Transport & Environment found that diesel particle filters, installed in modern cars, release huge numbers of the smallest, most hazardous PM2.5 particles when they de-coke every 300 miles. Shockingly, the manufacturers ensured that these toxic bursts are not included in emissions testing. Hot on the heels of the VW scandal, this underlines the need to accelerate the provision of high-speed charging points for electric cars.
Not only does the latest Environment Bill fail to get to grips with outdoor air pollution, it also excludes indoor air pollution where we spend 90% of our time. However, research from RCP shows that outdoor and indoor pollution interact to worsen respiratory conditions.
Meanwhile, 2,000 schools in the UK breach the WHO PM2.5 guideline of 10mr per cubic metre each year. High pollution adversely affects concentration and memory, and a recent study in Los Angeles found air filters led to substantial improvements in children’s academic performance.
While air filters are installed in some London schools, banning idling and stopping schools being built beside main roads will go a long way. Also, strategically placed plants can help absorption, and walking instead of driving can reduce exposure, especially when choosing less busy roads.
Encouraging people to make these behaviour changes will require a national education campaign that would be most effective alongside up-to-date information on pollution exposure. King’s College data is being used in apps; one aims to reduce exposure of outdoor workers, while another is targeted at runners to help them chose the best routes for their runs, potentially cutting risk by around 50%.
The Government should provide technology and local data to support people in making healthier choices for their families, and empower local authorities to implement local improvements. Business and the public are primed for change, so we must hasten towards a greener future.
The UK has the opportunity to become a world leader in the global problem of air pollution but the Environment Bill, as currently framed, won’t be enough. We need an all-embracing Clean Air Act so the Government fulfils its duty to protect its citizens from the invisible killer in our midst.