At 7am on Friday, Putney High Street in West London breached annual limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a toxic gas produced by diesel vehicles that has been linked to respiratory and heart problems.

Under EU rules, sites are only allowed to breach hourly limits of NO2 18 times in a year, but this morning Putney broke that limit for the 19th time. Chelsea and Kensington is expected to do the same later today. 

Oxford Street has almost certainly also broken the limit already, having breached the hourly level a thousand times last year, but the monitoring station has malfunctioned.

Campaigners said it was “breathtaking” the breach had come so early, though Oxford Street breached the annual limit in two days in 2015.

The UK has been in breach of EU pollution limits for five years now and last spring was ordered by the Supreme Court to publish an action plan on how to tackle the major health crisis. That plan was published in December, but London, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Cardiff and Edinburgh and other major cities will still be in breach of NO2 limits for at least another five years, despite the measures.

Andrew Grieve, an air quality analyst at King’s College London, which measures London’s air pollution levels, said the early breach was not extraordinary looking at data from previous years.

“It’s just [that] central London, and London as a whole, have a really huge problem with NO2. Breaching so early in the year really just illustrates how big a problem it is,” he told the Guardian. He added that there were lots of similar roads to those that breached limits earlier but did not have monitors on them.

Campaigners and politicians blamed the government for the breach.

Alan Andrews, a lawyer for ClientEarth, an NGO which warned last month that the action plan was inadequate, said: “This is exactly why we are taking the government back to court. Its failure to deal with illegal levels of air pollution, which causes thousands of early deaths in London every year, is a scandal.”

Simon Birkett, founder and director of Clean Air in London, said: “It is breathtaking that toxic air pollution in London has breached the legal limit for a whole year within a few days.”

Labour MEP, Seb Dance, said the government should ‘put up or shut up’: “Receiving this dubious accolade has become a depressing annual event for London. NOx [which includes NO2] kills thousands of Londoners every year, but the government shows no inclination to take proper action.

“Tory Ministers say the right things, but in reality they have lobbied hard against ambitious new EU air quality targets and have let car manufacturers off the hook after the VW scandal. It’s time for the UK government to put up or shut up.”

A report commissioned by mayor Boris Johnson last year found that nearly 9,500 people die prematurely each year because of the capital’s dirty air. An ultra low emissions zone is due to begin in 2020 in London to help tackle the problem.

Adam Vaughan

This article first appeared on the Guardian

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