More than 220 doctors today warned time is “running out” to tackle Britain’s toxic air scandal to protect a generation of young children.
The medics, including more than 100 from London, wrote to Theresa May urging her to start phasing out diesel vehicles as soon as possible to cut harmful fumes on the streets of the capital and other cities and towns.
“A national diesel reduction initiative, led by Government, will represent a major public health advance,” they said.
“However, time is running out, without urgent action emissions from diesel vehicles will cause irreversible lung damage to the current generation of children.”
They highlighted “strong and growing” evidence of a wide range of health impacts over lifetimes from nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and black carbon (soot) emissions.
“For example, in infants and children there is strong evidence, including data from children in London, that exposure to fossil fuel-derived air pollution stunts lung growth,” they explained.
They highlighted that 45 per cent of nitrogen oxide emissions in Greater London come from road transport.
“Modelling has shown that, alongside other measures, the percentage of cars that are diesel will need to be reduced from 57 per cent to five per cent of the total if Greater London is to become compliant with legal limits on NO2 emissions,” they added.
Ministers have so far shied away from a nationwide diesel car scrappage scheme, arguing that air pollution is largely an urban problem, or from changing vehicle excise duty to discourage motorists from buying diesel models.
However, the more than 280 doctors, nurses and other health professionals who signed the letter called for national action to dramatically cut the number of diesel cars, vans, taxis and light trucks.
In the letter drawn up by campaign group Doctors Against Diesel, they emphasised that there are now 585 Air Quality Management Areas across the UK, so most town halls had a statutory duty to take action on illegal levels of air pollution but their hands were tied as they had no powers to ban diesel vehicles.
Professor Jonathan Grigg, Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine, Queen Mary University of London, said: “In London, we know that diesel engines are a major and unnecessary cause of air pollution along our roads.
“Cutting diesel emissions would have an immediate impact on children’s personal exposure, and improve their long-term health.”
Professor John Middleton, President of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said: “Diesel…is linked to health effects that begin before birth and extend throughout the life course, from childhood lung development and asthma, to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and dementia.
“It is time for diesel to be recognised as the health emergency that it is.”
Scientists estimate the death toll in London from NO2 and small particulate pollution is up to 9,400-a-year, with many more people suffering health problems when toxic air peaks such as in mid-January.
Dr Isobel Braithwaite, a junior doctor at the children’s unit at the North Middlesex Hospital in Tottenham, north London, said: “I’ve seen a lot of patients, including children, come to A&E with asthma attacks, which are much more likely when pollution levels are higher.”
Dr Rajive Mitra, a cycling GP in North Lambeth, said: “I’d advise people heading out onto London’s busier streets to try to walk on quieter roads and walk away from the side of the road.”
Other signatories of the letter include Professor Inderjeet Dokal, Professor of Paediatrics, Centre for Genomics and Child Health, Queen Mary University London, Professor Adrian Martineau, Clinical Professor of Respiratory Infection & Immunity at Queen Mary University of London, Sir Andrew Haines, Professor of Public Health and Primary Care, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, David McCoy, Professor of Global Public Health, Queen Mary University London, Professor Chris Griffiths, Joint Centre Lead at the Centre for Primary Care and Public Health, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Professor Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Professor Robert Walton, Clinical Professor of Primary Care, Queen Mary University London, Professor Stephen Holgate, Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, Professor John Yudkin, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University College London, Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, Honorary Professor of Public Health, Kings College London, Dr Susan Hill, Consultant Paediatric Gastroenterologist, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, London, as well as more than 70 GP doctors, registrars, trainees or retired general practitioners.