Nov 16 2011
UK still dirty man of Europe
In a week when European Union Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik has called for 2013 to be designated as the “Year of Air”, and is pushing for stronger air quality laws across the European Union(EU), the UK Parliament’s Green Watchdog has put out a report saying tens of thousands of Britons die from man-made air pollution every year.
Despite this the UK Government is trying to water-down safety standards and shift blame to councils rather than tackling the problem themselves.
Latest figures suggest that in the UK air pollution contributed to the premature deaths of 200,000 people in 2008, hitting urban poor communities the hardest. Treating victims of Britain’s dirty air for lung and heart diseases costs as much as £20bn every year.
Yet neither Defra nor Department of Transport mention air quality in their business plans – despite Con/Dem Coalition promises to work towards EU air quality standards.
The Environmental Audit Committee inquiry shows that the UK government has “failed to get to grips” with the issue since the Committee’s damming 2010 report shone a spotlight on the scale of the problem. Instead, it has shifted responsibility to local authorities as part of its localism agenda. This could, under the Localism Bill, leave councils facing tens of millions of pounds in fines despite having no control over some pollution sources.
The European Commission Directive, on air pollution, is credited in steady improvements in air quality since the EU started setting standards in the 1990s.
The EU 2011 report on air quality, released on 9 November, shows broad historical improvements, with concentrations of sulphur dioxide falling by more than half in the decade ending in 2009 and the percentage of EU citizens exposed to sulphur exceeding health regulations falling to near zero. Carbon monoxide, a gas formed from burning fossil fuels, has fallen be as much as half.
Yet the report also shows that beginning in 2008, levels of nitrogen oxide (NO2), ozone and particulate matter have risen, fuelling concerns about overall air quality especially in urban “hot spots”. Health experts say exposure to such pollutants affect humans not only outdoors, but at home and in the office through open windows or air conditions systems without proper filters.
Poor air quality leads to complications ranging from itchy noses to serious respiratory and cardiac complications, health experts say. Some studies say bad air causes nearly 500,000 deaths per year in the EU – 0.1% of the bloc’s population – while estimates show that anti-pollution measures and factors such as the rising use of electric vehicles will cut deaths to 230,000 in 2020.
However, it is a national scandal that thousands of people are still dying from air pollution in the UK in 2011 – and the government is taking no responsibility for this.
Despite a coalition pledge to meet European safety standards on air pollution, the Government appears to be lobbying behind the scenes to water these rules down.
Poor air quality is caused by three main pollutants – nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and ozone. The UK is failing to meet EU limits for both nitrogen dioxide and PM.
Britain is one of Europe’s worst emitters of nitrogen oxides, which are by-products of burning fuel. Long-term exposure can lead to asthma, bronchitis and can aggravate allergies, especially in children.
In 2010, 40 out of the 43 UK air quality assessment zones did not achieve compliance with the EU limit for nitrogen dioxide. The government has so far avoided paying hundreds of millions of pounds in fines by successfully lobbying for compliance extensions.
Research suggests that living near busy roads could account for 15-30 per cent of new cases of asthma in children, and a similar percentage of cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary heart disease in adults aged over 65.
Deprived communities, who tend to live closest to the busiest roads, are affected most by poor air quality contributing to lower life expectancies, according to research from the Netherlands and London.
Environmental groups are calling for a public awareness campaign to drive air quality up the political agenda and ensure people understand the health dangers and what they can do to protect themselves and their children.