Why is it acceptable that air pollution kills thousands each year in the UK?

Nelson's Column during the Great Smog of 1952 ...

Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952 Original description: Nelson’s Column in December. Foggy Day in December 1952. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In December 1952, a combination of cold weather, high atmospheric pressure and windless conditions collected airborne pollutants to form a thick layer of smog over London.  Over the four days that the smog lasted, thousands died prematurely and tens of thousands were hospitalised for respiratory illness.  Action was needed and in 1956, the Clean Air Act was passed, the first comprehensive attempt to control smoke emissions from homes and industry in the UK.

Fast forward 60 years, and where are we?  Well, thousands die prematurely and tens of thousands are hospitalised each year as a result of air pollution in London.  Don’t be mistaken, the Clean Air Act has been a success – the big killer in the Great Smog of 1952 was sulphur dioxide from the burning of coal and this is no longer a significant problem in the UK.  The pollutants of concern now are nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, mainly from vehicle engines.  Various epidemiological and toxicological studies into the health effects of traffic-related air pollution have identified a range of effects including cardiopulmonary conditions, increased risk of non-allergic respiratory symptoms and disease, myocardial infarction, changes in the regulation of the nervous system and inflammatory responses. Further studies have identified an increased risk of various cancers such as lung cancer with prolonged exposure, adverse effects during pregnancy and a decrease in male fertility.

There is legislation in place to manage these pollutants.  The EU has set air quality limit values (expressed as ‘objectives’ in UK law, interestingly).  These limit values are based on empirical data about the effect the pollutants have on health – some pollutants have standards expressed as annual average concentrations due to the chronic way in which they affect health and others have standards expressed as 24-hour, one-hour or 15-minute average concentrations due to the acute way in which they affect health. Some pollutants have standards expressed in terms of both long-term and short-term concentrations, as they have the potential to cause both chronic and acute health effects.

The UK Government passes the responsibility for meeting the air quality objectives to local authorities.  Under the Environment Act 1995, local authorities are required to review and assess air quality. Where objectives are not predicted to be met, local authorities must declare the area as an Air Quality Management Area. In addition, local authorities are required to produce an Air Quality Action Plan which includes measures to improve air quality within the Air Quality Management Area.  But that’s as far as it goes.

In the UK, most large cities fail to meet the air quality objectives.  In some areas, such as in Brixton and Putney, both in London, the objectives are exceeded by a factor of three.  The result of this has been estimated at 50,000 premature deaths per year across the UK by a House of Commons Committee report. The Greater London Authority has also commissioned research which suggests that air pollution contributed to 4,267 premature deaths in London in 2008.

Clearly the system is not working.  With the Great Smog of 1952 providing a stark realisation that earlier legislation was not working (air quality legislation in the UK dates back to the Alkali Act 1863) and that death and disease on this scale was not acceptable, the Government of the day passed the Clean Air Act in 1956.  Faced with economic woes (sound familiar?), the Government (Conservative, led by Harold Macmillan) took action, albeit following severe pressure from back benchers.  They took bold, costly and effective steps to deal with the problem. So, faced with an air quality and mortality problem on a similar scale, what does our Conservative (and Liberal Democrat) Government of 2012 do?  According to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, “the Government is putting thousands of lives at risk by trying to water down EU air quality rules instead of prioritising action to cut pollution on UK roads.”  And rather than cutting pollution from UK roads, this Government, also faced with economic difficulties, chooses instead to spend £1 billion building more roads.

Why is this acceptable?