By Tom Bawden
Two-thirds of the British population live in areas that breach the World Health Organisation’s air pollution safety limit, researchers have found.The most detailed study of air pollution ever undertaken finds that the problem goes far beyond major cities to encompass vast swathes of the rural areas.
It identifies a North-South divide - with the south much worst affected - and reveals huge areas of pollution spreading out for miles beyond London and Birmingham in particular and all along the East and South East of the country.
Down to wind and vehicles
Rural air pollution is carried from the big cities by wind, with lorries and other long-distance traffic also now thought to play a larger role than expected.
"Air pollution is much more widespread than we thought. I had expected to see high levels in London, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool - but I was surprised so see that it is filling in the gaps between the big cities as well," said Professor Gavin Shaddick, of the University of Exeter.
"It's only really the most rural places, like the Highlands of Scotland and West Wales where it goes down to the kind of levels you might call 'clean' air," added Prof Shaddick, whose team worked with the World Health Organisation on the research.
"Air pollution is much more widespread than we thought,"
The researchers measured the level of the most harmful type of air pollution, known as PM2.5 particulates.
These particles are just 2.5 thousandths of a millimetre wide and come from diesel exhaust, road dust, coal and wood burning and industry. The World Health Organisation regards an average annual level of 10 thousandths of a gram per cubic metre to be unsafe, with levels running up to that still regarded as too high.
The highest levels in the UK - of 15.2 micrograms per cubic metre - were recorded in central London.
Health implications of air pollution
These particulates contribute to an estimated 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK, causing health problems such as lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, pneumonia and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease - an umbrella term for lung disease.
Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, said: "This new study lays bare the government's utter failure to get to grips with the air pollution crisis in Britain."
"While some minor progress has been made, it's clear that the promotion of private vehicle-use and the roadbuilding obsession of recent governments risk damaging people's lungs," she added.
Ms Lucas says that if the government is serious about getting a grip on air pollution then we need to see a new Clean Air Act to drive down emissions, and tough measures to get people out of polluting vehicles and using affordable public transport options instead.
Greenpeace UK clean air campaigner Paul Morozzo added: "No one should live in fear of being slowly poisoned by the air they breathe. Ministers should be working around the clock to tackle this health emergency, instead they're dragging their feet.
The High Court ruled for the third time in February that government plans to clean up UK air quality were "unlawful" with so many areas breaching legal limits.A government spokesman said at the time: "Air pollution has improved significantly since 2010, but we recognise there is more to do which is why we have put in place a £3.5billion plan to improve air quality and reduce harmful emissions.
We will also end the sale of conventional new diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040, and next year we will publish a comprehensive clean air strategy which will set out further steps to tackle air pollution, he said.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, iNews