8 Feb 2009

Britain's air quality: enough to make you gasp

Britain is deservedly facing legal action over its failure to meet European air quality standards.

Photo: Spotted an air pollution monitoring van in Stroud area last year.

Last week the European Commission announced that it will be taking legal action against the UK for its continuing failure to meet agreed air quality standards. In the view of many Greens this decision comes not a moment too soon, as the UK's failure to comply with the basic standards since 2005 has led to unacceptable levels of certain airborne pollutants.

Greater London remains one of the worst areas for air quality, although sites in Glasgow, Southampton, Brighton and other urban centres also regularly exceed the daily limits. High levels of these pollutants are extremely dangerous to human health. Indeed the World Health Organisation (WHO) has asserted that no level of exposure to particulates is safe! This is serious stuff and should not be underestimated.

The new air quality directive provided an option for member states to apply for an extension for particular geographical areas which, if they met the conditions, would delay the target for tiny airborne particles known as PM10. However, the UK government missed the deadline of 31 October last year to apply for an extension! Is this disregard for the legislation or knowledge they would not meet the conditions. The UK are not alone many other EU countries are taking a cavalier approach to this law.

Amazingly the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has launched a consultation on a planned application to delay meeting the PM10 standards until mid-2011. The consultation will cover eight geographical areas in the UK, including London but not Gloucestershire. Consultation instead of action on measures they should have been taking long ago - and the planned expansion of Heathrow airport makes a mockery of any plans they are making.

Jean Lambert, Green MEP who has been leading on this says: "I am at a loss as to how the government can even consider a third runway, bringing substantial additional air and road traffic to an area where air quality is already failing. Extensive mitigation measures must be introduced now to bring air quality to an acceptable standard and the Heathrow plan rejected outright. Air quality is being ignored in the name of economic recovery and the creation of new jobs, but those jobs will not arrive soon, if indeed they arrive at all. Many will be vulnerable to consumer spending, while we might legitimately expect an increase in demand for the health and care sector as more people suffer severe respiratory problems. The government should instead invest the funds for Heathrow expansion in high quality, affordable rail travel. It should protect and increase jobs in public transport, introduce and maintain cleaner and greener buses and even - in London - ensure the Crossrail project comes to fruition."

Basically the facts are that breathing heavily polluted air is putting many people at greater risk of developing asthma, other respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer and investing in air quality is a crucial social, as well as environmental, measure. Big business will not improve unless they are forced to act - it is time they were made to - the Government took action on smoking to improve air quality and health - now let's see action on this instead of more consultation and postponement.

See Guardian comment from which this blog is based on - see Jean Lambert comment here. To respond to the government's consultation on the application to the European Commission for an extension to meet air quality limits for particular matter (PM10) go here.

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