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Media reaction: 15 November 2021
The UK Government could have avoided thousands of deaths in 2019 had it acted to reduce air pollution to within global guidelines set by health experts, new figures from the European Environment Agency (EEA) have revealed.
According to the analysis, in 2019 fine particulate matter (PM2.5) was responsible for more than 33,000 deaths annually in the UK, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) for 5,750. Half of the UK’s deaths from PM2.5 could have been avoided if the UK had followed the latest recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The UK was in the top five European countries with the most premature deaths resulting from both PM2.5 pollution and NO2 pollution.
The country’s new Environment Act has just been passed but the government missed an opportunity to follow WHO guideline for PM2.5 in the Act as it stands. The environmental law charity ClientEarth says that this absolutely must be fixed.
Andrea Lee, clean air campaign manager at ClientEarth said: “The world’s leading experts have made it clear that there is no level of air pollution that’s safe to breathe – and this is why our government must be doing all it can to keep our exposure as low as possible.
“That starts with reflecting the best possible science in the law. The current legal limits for air pollution just don’t cut it. We need to see the WHO guidelines reflected in legislation as soon as possible, to protect us and our children. The air we breathe today shapes our lives forever.”
ClientEarth has previously brought and won three cases in front of the courts in the UK – on these three occasions, the courts have found the UK Government to be breaching the law on NO2 pollution and have ordered ministers to produce new, compliant air quality plans to tackle the problem.
Across Europe, 373,000 premature deaths were attributable to PM2.5 pollution and 47,700 to NO2 in 2019.
The table below compares the current UK legal limits for air pollution to the WHO guidelines from 2005 and 2021. Campaigners and health experts have long been campaigning for the 2005 WHO air quality guideline for PM2.5 to be adopted in the Environment Act, which was first published in 2019. The WHO subsequently published updated and dramatically lower guidelines in September 2021.
UK legal limit
2005 WHO guideline
2021 WHO guideline
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
1 year/ annual
Fine particulate matter (PM2.5)
1 year/ annual
ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.