Air pollution is UK’s ‘forgotten public health crisis’

Air pollution is the UK’s ‘forgotten public health crisis’ and a new government strategy is needed, according to the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM).

The professional body and registered charity published a report this week (July 22), ‘Clearing the Air – priorities for reducing air pollution in the UK’, which sets out a number of recommendations for government air quality policy.

The CIWEM report calls for the Highways Agency to be given more power to tackle air pollution on UK roads

The CIWEM report calls for the Highways Agency to be given more power to tackle air pollution on UK roads

The recommendations largely focus on traffic, as the CIWEM estimates that road transport is the main source of pollution in 92% of UK Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs), whereas only 2% have been declared solely due to industrial emissions.

According to the report, more than 500 AQMAs declared for nitrogen dioxide, 100 for PM10 and eight for sulphur dioxide.

However, CIWEM contends that the pollutants of the ‘greatest policy importance for the future’ are nitrogen dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter, ozone and volatile organic compounds.

Road transport

Among the recommendations to tackle pollution from road transport, CIWEM calls for more power to be given to the Highways Agency instead of local authorities.

According to the report, Air Quality Action Plans (AQAPs) ‘have, in general, been ineffective at reducing emissions because many local authorities do not have any powers to control traffic’.

Currently, local authorities have control over most roads in the UK, but work in partnership with the Highways Agency on larger roads, over which the Agency has control.

But the report states that the Highways Agency should be given ‘stronger direction and responsibility by government to ensure that air quality objectives are achieved’, as it is a larger, more influential organisation and can afford ‘greater in-house expertise’.

Furthermore, the report suggests that the government’s focus on policies to tackle climate change have in some cases ‘had a detrimental impact on air quality’, such as the increasing use of biomass boilers in urban areas and the encouragement of low-carbon diesel cars, which emit particulate matter.

In the UK, around 29,000 deaths are estimated to be caused by man-made particulate matter pollution, costing the economy up to £15 billion per year.

The report also criticises engine manufacturers for finding ‘cheaper, but less effective, methods to meet the PM emissions limits’ and calls for the wider use of diesel car filters, which are ‘very effective’ at reducing particulate matter levels.

It also suggests that the government undertake a comprehensive testing of a large sample of vehicles in order to better understand what is currently emitted from the tailpipe.

New strategy

Commenting on its report, CIWEM called for a revision of the National Air Quality Strategy, which was last amended six years ago, in order to set the direction for air policy to 2030.

It said such a revision should focus on different sizes and components of particulate matter, such as black carbon and ultrafine particles (PM0.1), as well as prioritising the reduction of nitrogen dioxide exposure.

The organisation also said that many air pollution measures would only be effective if the government increased its investment in raising public awareness of the adverse effects of air quality.

CIWEM said: “We believe the current strategy to be out of date and a full revision is required to reflect the current evidence of the harm being done to human health and ecological systems, and the policies and priorities of the government over the medium term, to 2030.

“CIWEM asserts that the protection of human health and the environment must not be relaxed due to the current economic conditions, but should take full account of the health and environmental impacts, which too have economic costs.”

The report is available on the CIWEM website.