Study shows 44 of 51 UK towns and cities breach air quality rules

New evidence has found that the vast majority of highly-populated British urban areas are in breach of World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended guidelines for air quality.

The Royal College of Physicians estimates that ambient air pollution causes around 40,000 premature deaths each year

The Royal College of Physicians estimates that ambient air pollution causes around 40,000 premature deaths each year

Research from the Royal College of Physicians shows that 44 UK towns and cities including London, Manchester and Cardiff fail the WHO’s test for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5), which are linked to heart disease and premature death.

WHO guidelines stipulate that exposure to PM2.5 should not go above 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air, but evidence has found that top cities such as Glasgow (16) and London (15), alongside seaside resorts such as Eastbourne (15), exceed the recommendations.

The Royal College of Physicians’ lead on sustainability Dr Toby Hillman called on the Government to take immediate action.

“We know that high exposures in early life have a major effect on lung and cognitive development throughout an individual's life – that is why it is the Government's duty to improve the air we breathe and to ensure that people across the UK are not exposed to such a preventable cause of death and illness,” Hillman said.

Policy package

Specifically, the Government is urged to adopt a comprehensive policy package that includes clean air zones and investment in sustainable modes of travel. Researchers suggest that increased funding for active travel to at least £10 per person could lead to “enormous health and economic savings”.

The Government’s Air Quality Plan, set to come into force next year, proposes a £3bn programme to clean up dirty air around UK roads. It has also set aside £1bn towards the development of ultra-low emission vehicles, as well as around £1.2bn to support cycling and walking initiatives across the country.

As part of the strategy, the Government has committed to the phase-out of new car sales for petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040.

The Royal College of Physicians estimates that ambient air pollution causes around 40,000 premature deaths, more than six million sick days and an estimated total social cost of £22.6bn in the UK each year.

While noting the need for greater efforts to reduce the UK’s toxic air levels, the body cited this month’s introduction of London’s T-Charge as a good example of how the UK can lead the way globally. The fee - seen as a “stepping stone” to the proposed Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) - requires older polluting cars now required to pay £10 to drive through the centre of London.

Oxford, one of the cities breaching WHO guideline, earlier this month unveiled plans to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles from the city centre with an ultimate aim to deliver a zero-emission zone in 2035.

George Ogleby


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