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Air quality: Why we can’t breathe easily

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Jim Byard, partner at national law firm Weightmans, looks at the latest report on air quality.

The recent publication of the report, “The Lifelong Impact of Air Pollution” by the Royal College of Physicians estimates that;

∙          40,000 deaths per year are attributable to air pollution.

∙       Air pollution has direct or indirect links to cancer asthma, stroke, type 2 diabetes and dementia. 

∙       Air pollution worsens pre existing conditions particularly lung conditions such as asthma and emphysema.

∙       Air pollution costs the economy £20 billion annually.

This is not the first report to draw this issue to the forefront of the nations consciousness.   Consequent to the UK breaching EU rules on nitrogen dioxide levels for the fifth year running, the UK Supreme Court ordered the Government to draw up an action plan in December 2015 to reduce air pollution and ensure compliance with the rules. 

The European Union Rules on air quality say levels of nitrogen dioxide must not breach maximum levels for more than 18 hours per year – the rules this year had been breached in London by mid January (Putney, London).  It is likely that the breach would have occurred earlier, save that the equipment used to monitor air quality levels on the UK’s “most polluted Street” – Oxford Street, London had broken!

The Royal College of Physicians report identifies carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate emissions as the main constituents of air pollution. It points to the tenfold rise in vehicular traffic since 1950 and identifies a shift from petrol to diesel fuelled vehicles which now account for 50 % of all passenger traffic compared to just 14 % in 2000.

Other studies have also shown that nearly 50 % of air pollution is caused by non exhaust sources; brake and road surface wear, in addition to particles whipped up by passing vehicles. 

Most commentators predict that the EU Rules on air quality will not be met in major cities including London Birmingham and Leeds until the year 2030 .This is despite the plans to introduce  a charge on older commercial vehicles – trucks, buses and taxis entering our most polluted cities from 2020. The 88 million privately owned vehicles will however  be exempt.

The report will also heighten pressure on the Government to promote rail, freight and passenger transport , in addition to ensuring more stringent and reliable emission testing ,combined with consultation with vehicle manufacturers to reduce emissions at source. 

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