Air pollution is a growing environmental and health issue in many countries across the world. In 2012 the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that seven million people died as a result of air pollution exposure and it is almost certain that this figure has continued to rise.
In developed countries it is estimated that traffic pollution is related to 1/5 of deaths and worldwide to 1/20. This has led to some drastic measures in some countries to try and reduce levels, including:
- In Mexico City all cars have to remain idle for one day a week and one Sunday a month until the end of June 2016.
- Both Milan and Rome put restrictions on car use as a result of rising smog levels in 2015.
- Earlier this year in Delhi, cars were banned on alternate days according to whether they had an odd or even licence plate.
In the UK, the campaign group Healthy Air reports that air pollution is linked to around 29,000 premature deaths each year and is responsible for reducing life expectancy by up to eleven years. Much of the air pollution in the UK is attributed to road traffic, particularly from diesel fumes. These fumes contain Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) which is associated with respiratory conditions and is extremely harmful to health. A link has also been found between the use of fertiliser and increased pollution levels, as the ammonia in the fertiliser reacts with traffic fumes to form soot particles.
In fact air pollution levels in the UK are so bad that in 2011 the environmental law NGO ClientEarth took the government to court over their failure to achieve safe levels. The case finished in 2015 with the Supreme Court backing ClientEarth and ordering the government to deliver more effective plans to reduce levels of air pollution.
In London, where many streets exceeded the annual target for pollution levels in January, there are plans to introduce a new Ultra Low Emissions Zone in the coming years. This builds upon the existing Low Emissions Zone by:
- Setting new exhaust emissions standards and a daily non-compliance charge for vehicles from September 2020.
- Ensuring all taxis and private hire vehicles will have zero emissions by 2018.
- Ensuring all double deck buses will have hybrid engines and all single deck buses will have zero emissions by 2020.
These standards will operate in the same area as the current Congestion Charging Zone. Clean Air Zones are also planned for Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton by 2020. These zones will not affect private vehicles but will instead discourage old or diesel powered buses, coaches and lorries from entering parts of the city.
Campaigners say that there is still not enough being done, as targets are still not being met and there is little focus on agricultural or industrial pollutants. There are even reports from Mexico City and Delhi that since the introduction of the restrictions, the production of fake licence plates has dramatically increased!
Clearly a lot of work is needed to reduce air pollution levels, especially as our understanding of the associated health impacts is still growing. Daily air pollution levels and forecasts are available at http://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/ and there are several apps for phones, such as Plume (https://plumelabs.com/) for real time data.
Healthy Air: http://www.healthyair.org.uk/the-problem/