When it comes to traffic pollution, the UK is still the dirty old man of Europe

Today the government submitted its official report to the European Commission on levels of air pollution in the UK for 2010. It makes for pretty grim reading. The report confirms that 40 of the 43 air quality zones in the UK breached the annual limits for nitrogen dioxide. No other EU country has a higher proportion of non-compliant zones.

EU directives set legal limits on levels of harmful air pollutants in the air we breathe. One of these pollutants is nitrogen dioxide – a harmful gas emitted by burning fossil fuels. Road traffic fumes are the main source of this pollutant, with emissions from domestic boilers and industry also playing a significant part.

The situtation is particularly bad in London, where an area of 91 km2  breaches the annual limit, exposing nearly 700,000 people to illegal levels of air pollution. The air pollution monitoring station at Marylebone Road, just opposite Madame Tussauds, recorded over 500 breaches of a short term hourly limit. However, by not including data from other worse sites in the official report, the government are hiding the true severity of London’s air quality crisis. Data from the excellent London Air Quality Network, run by King’s College London, show that Brixton Road recorded a staggering 2,683 breaches of the hourly limit in 2010, closely followed by Putney High Street, with 2,481.

For those of us who work in the field of air quality these figures come as no surprise. In fact, ClientEarth threatened the government with legal action in November 2010 over breaches of the limits in London. The government assured us that it was in the process of producing air quality plans for each zone which would show how the limits would be achieved by 2015 at the latest. However, when these plans were eventually published for public consultation in June this year, they revealed that for 17 zones, the limits would not be achieved until well after 2015. In the case of London, it could be as late as 2025!

ClientEarth therefore issued judicial review proceedings against the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We are calling on the High Court to order Defra to draw up new plans which will achieve compliance by 2015, as required by law. On the 16th September the High Court gave us permission to proceed, and we expect a full one-day hearing before Christmas.

So why are we so concerned by nitrogen dioxide? First and foremost, this is a health issue. In high concentrations nitrogen dioxide can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and cause shortness of breath. But for children, older people, or those with pre-existing health conditions, the effects can be far more damaging. A study published last week concluded that breathing in high concentrations of traffic fumes, including nitrogen dioxide, can trigger heart attacks. Another recent study has shown that living near busy, polluted roads could be responsible for some 15-30 per cent of all new cases of asthma in children; and of diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema and heart disease in adults over 65.

The European Commission will almost certainly launch enforcement proceedings against the UK for these breaches, probably in early 2012. Facing legal action at home and from Europe, the government has to start taking this problem seriously.

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