MPs are to launch a new inquiry into air quality in London amid warnings that thousands of people are dying prematurely due to “invisible killer” pollution, The Standard reveals today.
Just days after smog and sand whipped up from the Sahara hit the capital, parliamentarians condemned “painfully slow” progress in recent years in tackling pollution black spots.
The Commons Environmental Audit Committee is to probe why City Hall and the Government have not injected more effort into improving air quality since 2010 when the MPs published an earlier report on pollution.
“Thousands of Londoners are having their lives shortened every year by diesel fumes and tiny particles of tyre and soot in the air. Look out across the capital on a sunny day and you can see the smog hazily smothering the city,” said committee chairwoman Joan Walley.
“The Environmental Audit Committee warned four years ago that urgent action was needed to tackle this invisible killer haunting our streets. London was breaching EU safety limits on air pollution back then and it is still breaching them now.
“We want to know why progress on tackling this problem has been so painfully slow.”
Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster, were named last week as having the most man-made polluted air in the UK, according to a report by Public Health England.
It highlighted that London has by far the worst air pollution problem in the country, largely due to traffic levels, with the wider South East also suffering badly.
In London, 3,389 deaths were estimated to be linked to air pollution and 41,404 “life years” lost in 2010, while in the South East, 4,034 people died and 41,728 years were lost, according to the study.
Around one in 12 deaths in Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster, of people aged over 25 were caused in part by long-term exposure to particle air pollution, the research found.
While air quality had improved in recent decades, due significantly to cleaner vehicles and tougher environmental laws, thousands of Londoners are still having their lives shortened by months, if not years, say scientists.
Boris Johnson’s Air Quality Strategy has focused on levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) as these are often linked with negative health impacts.
A spokeswoman for the Mayor of London said: “The Mayor takes London’s air quality extremely seriously and is driving the most ambitious and comprehensive package of pollution tackling measures in the world.
“His policies have halved the number of Londoners living in areas above nitrogen dioxide (NO2) limits, brought NOx emissions down by 20 per cent and PM10 down by 15 per cent.”
She added that in the last four years cleaner buses had been introduced on London’s roads, as well as age limits for taxis, a £20 million fund set up to tackle air pollution hotspots, with nearly £1 billion to improve cycling infrastructure.
“Most significantly, he has announced an Ultra Low Emission Zone in central London from 2020. This will be a world first game changer for London’s air quality – no city in the world is doing more,” she said.
The Environmental Audit Committee called in 2010 for a “significant shift” in transport policy and warned insufficient priority was being given to cutting pollution blamed for exacerbating public health problems including asthma, and other breathing and heart conditions.
At the time, Professor Frank Kelly, an environmental health expert from King’s College, London, estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 people in the capital were dying early each year due to pollution.
In the worst cases, individuals were having their lives cut short by up to ten years, he warned.
Concerns have also been raised about the possible health impacts on hundreds of thousands of pupils at schools in London close to busy roads.
Green campaigners stressed that there are 1,148 schools in London within 150 metres of roads carrying 10,000 or more vehicles per day.
Scientists say living near roads with such traffic levels could significantly increase the risk of children suffering from asthma and of people developing breathing and heart problems later in life.
London is not alone in suffering from smog problems, with Chinese cities such as Beijing worse affected and Paris limiting car use last month with only motorists with odd-numbered number plates allowed to drive one day and even-numbered the following day.
A Government spokeswoman said: “We have committed billions to increase uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles, sustainable travel and green transport initiatives, all of which will help improve air quality.”