When a London anti-pollution organisation polled British lawmakers about the greatest risks to public health, most MPs were wrong, ranking traffic accidents or heavy drinking ahead of air pollution as a leading killer of Britons.
“The vast majority of over 100 members of Parliament responding to our survey displayed a shocking level of ignorance about the health impact of air pollution,” said Simon Birkett, head of Clean Air in London, an advocacy group.
“In particular, over two-thirds of Conservative MPs responding said air pollution has less impact than road traffic accidents,” he said on releasing the survey results on 23 May.
Figures crunched by the London-based group show that the cocktail of fine particle emissions comprising gases such as nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) kill some 29,000 people in the United Kingdom each year, while 1,901 people died in traffic crashes in 2011. Only smoking kills more Britons than bad air, government health figures show, an average of 80,000 per year, with as many as 22,000 people dying of alcohol-related causes.
Dirty air across Europe
Environmental and health groups say London if by no means an isolated case. Some of the EU’s deadliest air can be found in Bulgaria and Romania, yet few urban areas escape unhealthy pollutants, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA).
Residents of most large cities in the European Union are exposed to stubbornly high levels of noxious pollutants that in some cases exceed international health standards, including fine particulates produced from emissions of NOx, SO2, ammonia (NH3) and organic compounds.
Transport, along with energy production and agriculture, are leading polluters, EEA figures show. Diesel engines, though they produce lower levels of carbon emissions, produce high NOx emissions that contribute to unhealthy ground-level ozone and smog – although newer vehicles are required to be outfitted with filtering technology.
Britain, like most EU countries, has a spotty record at enforcing the European Commission’s 2008 Air Quality Directive and other laws that are intended to reduce pollutants. The European Commission has taken action against some 20 countries – including the UK – for failing to improve air quality.
But health and environmental groups argue that the Air Quality Directive, the EU’s main pollution-fighting law, needs more teeth to punish states for inaction.
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