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Government has ‘moral duty’ to fight air pollution in poor areas after Covid

Ministers have placed too much responsibility on councils to tackle air pollution, the environment committee said, while deprived communities were being hardest hit by toxic air
Nearly half of poorer areas in London are exposed to dangerously high air pollution compared to just two per cent of wealthy areas. "Busy London Street" by code_martial is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Government is not doing enough to cut down the air pollution driving health inequalities in poorer communities, a group of MPs has said.

Ministers have “failed to address the scale of the challenge,” the environment committee report said, and have passed too much of the responsibility to local authorities.

“Every year, an estimated 64,000 deaths are linked to air pollution disproportionately affecting disadvantaged communities,” said Neil Parish MP, committee chair.

“In rebuilding after the pandemic, we have a moral duty to put improving air quality at its core.”

No concrete targets for air pollution reduction are set out in the Environment Bill, which is currently being considered in Parliament.

Disadvantaged as well as black and minority ethnic communities suffer the worst effects of air pollution, despite contributing to it the least. This “increases the moral case for action,” according to the report, which said there was a strong case for acting on air pollution even before it was found to increase poor health outcomes from Covid-19.

People living in deprived communities face a “triple jeopardy” of higher exposure to air pollution, higher rates of health conditions and an increased chance of being vulnerable to the effects of dirty air, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer said in 2017.

Last year Lewisham child Ella Kissi-Debrah was the first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death, after she died of acute respiratory failure in south London in 2013. 

The nine-year-old was consistently exposed to higher levels of nitrogen dioxide and toxic particles than the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit, coroner Philip Barlow said in the landmark ruling, which triggered and exacerbated her severe asthma.

The British Medical Association told the committee nearly half of disadvantaged communities in London recorded pollution levels higher than the EU limit, compared to just two per cent of wealthier communities.

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MPs expressed concern that people will be more inclined to use cars after the pandemic due to social distancing fears, and called for a public campaign to help people feel safe using public transport.

The air particle pollution limit set out in the UK’s Clean Air Strategy is two and a half times higher than that recommended by the World Health Organisation, something the MPs want rectified in law.

“Air pollution at a national level has reduced significantly since 2010 – emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) have fallen by 9 per cent, while emissions of nitrogen oxides have fallen by 33 per cent and are at their lowest level since records began,” a government spokesperson said. “However, we know there is more to do as we build back greener from the coronavirus pandemic.

“Through our landmark Environment Bill we have committed to setting at least two ambitious new air quality targets, with a primary focus on reducing public health impacts. One of these will be a new concentration target on PM2.5 [small particles] – the most damaging pollutant to human health – and as part of this we will be considering the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for PM2.5.”

But the Government’s plans rely too heavily on councils to clean up the country’s air, the environmental committee said, while failing to give them the powers and funding necessary.

Westminster should commit to a new, long-term funding structure enabling local authorities to take environmental action, according to the MPs.

“While the Clean Air Strategy is a step in the right direction, the Government needs to be more ambitious,” Parish said.

“Before the Environment Bill comes back, commitments to reduce the levels of toxic particulates that cause the most harm must be strengthened – and targets on reducing the health impacts of air pollution included too. 

“We were quick to return to our old ways following the spring lockdown, with pollution levels bouncing back by the summer.

“The Government has rightly banned the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, but we need more work to help accelerate towards a greener, cleaner future, so that commuting less and using electric vehicles more will be a real option for the majority.”

The report came as the British Lung Foundation (BLF) and Asthma UK released new findings showing more than half of people over 65 in England live in areas with high air pollution rates, putting six million older people at high risk of lung damage and asthma attacks. 

More than a quarter of care homes are in areas with dangerously high levels of small particles in the air, and toxic air causes between 30,000 and 40,000 early deaths each year, the report said.

“Air pollution impacts everyone, but can have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable people in our society – children, older people and the millions of people with a lung condition,” said Harriet Edwards, policy manager at Asthma UK and the BLF.