Health

Air pollution 'causing deadly public health crisis'

  • 8 December 2014
  • From the section Health
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Exhaust Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nitrogen dioxide is a by-product of diesel engines

New schools, care homes and hospitals should be built far away from major roads because of the dangers of air pollution, a report by MPs says.

The Environmental Audit Committee argues air pollution is a "public health crisis" causing nearly as many deaths as smoking.

It also suggested a scrappage scheme for diesel cars to cut emissions.

The government said it was "investing heavily" in clean air, but campaigners said it was ignoring the issue.

There are an estimated 29,000 deaths annually in the UK from air pollution.

Nitrogen dioxide is known to cause inflammation of the airways, reduce lung function and exacerbate asthma.

Particulate matter - tiny invisible specks of mineral dust, carbon and other chemicals - are linked to heart and lung diseases as well as cancer.

Some particulate matter lodges in the lungs, while the finest particles can enter the bloodstream, risking damage elsewhere in the body.

'Forecasts'

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption London in April this year, when dust from the Sahara combined with pollution from mainland Europe

Joan Walley, the committee chairwoman, told the BBC: "There is a public health crisis in terms of poor air quality.

"There are nearly as many deaths now caused by air pollution as there are from smoking, so the main thing is we stop a new generation of children being exposed."

She said government "should make it impossible" for new schools, care home or health clinics to be built in pollution hotspots.

She added that "well over a thousand" schools were already near major roads and that it "made sound economic sense" to filter the air coming into the buildings.

The committee's report says traffic is responsible for 42% of carbon monoxide, 46% of nitrogen oxides and 26% of particulate matter pollution.

It said government had promoted diesel vehicles as they produced less of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

But the committee said diesel was now seen as "the most significant driver of air pollution in our cities".

They called for government to pay for diesel drivers to upgrade their engines or for a national scrappage scheme to take the most polluting vehicles off the road.

Other measures suggested include:

  • The Met Office and BBC producing high pollution forecasts alongside ones for pollen and UV.
  • A national plan for "low emission zones" to tackle heavily polluting vehicles, like the one in London.
  • Changes to fuel duty to encourage low nitrogen dioxide vehicles as well as low carbon dioxide.
  • Financial incentives for alternative fuels.
  • Encourage walking and cycling as the "ultimate low emission" option

Dr Ian Mudway, a lecturer in respiratory toxicology at King's College London, told the BBC: "The evidence is there. The 29,000 figure is very solid, so really it is a case of acting.

"But it is a strange one, because it's their third [report] in five years and it is an attempt to get the government to do anything."

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".

"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," said Dr Penny Woods, the charity's chief executive.

Image copyright Getty Images

Asthma UK said air pollution increased the risk of a life-threatening attack and "urgent and concerted action" was needed to bring pollution levels down.

Chief executive Kay Boycott said: "In the short term some of the measures recommended in this report, such as the publicising of high air pollution forecasts, could help people with asthma know in advance if they should seek advice from their GP or asthma nurse."

Simon Gillespie, the chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said: "The government cannot continue to ignore this issue.

"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."

A government spokesperson said there would be a full response to the report in the future, but added: "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."

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