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Wake-up call on air quality

William Hatchett18/01/2017 - 14:00

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Diesel is worst culprit
Diesel is worst culprit

There can be no piecemeal approach to improving the UK’s air quality, Tim Chatterton senior research fellow at the University of the West of England, told a seminar hosted by the CIEH. Organised with the London Sustainability Exchange, the event was held to discuss recommendations from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) on improving outdoor air quality.

Tony Lewis, CIEH head of policy, said: ‘We were delighted to bring together experts on planning, transport, active travel and environmental health to discuss one of the most important health issues of our day, as part of our ongoing air quality campaign.

He added: ‘It was a stimulating evening which produced a good debate and lots of interesting ideas. One thing is clear. Merely tinkering with this problem is not going to work. We need as a country to make some serious choices if we are not going to jeopardise the health of future generations and half-measures just aren’t good enough. This was a wake-up call.’

Dr Chatterton told the experts that ‘no-one could disagree with’ NICE’s recommendations. He commented: ‘The report is all right as far as it goes but it’s nothing new. It’s too small scale and not particularly challenging. It doesn’t address the big picture.’

He argued that only large-scale changes in behavior and meaningful traffic reduction programmes would make a significant impact on air quality. Measures introduced in 1997 including local authority air quality management areas had had little impact. Far from cutting road traffic, responsible for most pollution, the Department for Transport was planning for an up to 42 per cent growth in car ownership and 55 per cent increase in miles driven by 2040.

He said that the five new clean air zones proposed by government by 2020 were totally inadequate and that so-called pollution ‘hot spots’ were actually local manifestations of a national problem which was not being addressed. People, he argued, could not make meaningful changes to their travel and work if choices were not available.

Cuts to Defra, DfT and local authority budgets, including environment health, he said, were a ‘dismantling of the estate’, leading to damaging reductions in air quality monitoring and expertise.

Paediatrician Dr Jonathan Griggs reported on proven correlations between NO2 and particulate pollution and lung development in children in inner-city areas, leading to asthma and atherosclerosis. Children in the most deprived areas were the worst affected.

He argued that the ‘dash to diesel’ over the last decade, driven by the desire to reduce greenhouse gases, had been detrimental to air quality, reversing previous step-change improvements made with the help of EHPs. Vans, lorries, taxis and buses, he said, are responsible for almost half of harmful air pollution from nitrogen gases and particulates.

Stephen Inch of the Greater London Authority air quality team told the meeting that, as an integrated transport authority, the GLA had made significant progress on tackling air quality, especially under mayor, Sadiq Khan. The GLA’s congestion charge, its low emission zone and proposed ultra-low emission zone and local low emission neighbourhoods were making an impact. The GLA was also modernising buses and taxis, to make them run cleaner.

Seakers agreed that substituting petrol and diesel vehicles for electric vehicles was not the solution to improving air quality. The infrastructure required was only just beginning and 80 per cent of particulates came from tyre and break wear, which also occurred in electric vehicles.

Following a legal action by campaigners ClientEarth, the High Court has ruled that the UK government has until July to produce a satisfactory air quality plan to bring NO2 levels within legal limits. The maximum hourly threshold for NO2 had already been exceeded in London on 5 January this year. Under EU law hourly levels of NO2 should not exceed 200 micrograms per cubic metre more than 18 times in a year (EHN Extra, 11 January).

Organisations have until 25 January to respond to the NICE consultation which makes recommendations on planning, transport fleets, traffic calming, public awareness and encouraging walking and cycling.

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