Opinion: Is it too much to ask that our MPs understand the health impact of air pollution?

The events of last week in Woolwich totally dominated the media, and quite rightly so. However there was an opinion poll that was published last week that also deserves some attention.

In April Dods interviewed 101 Members of Parliament – that is almost one in six of them – about their attitudes towards air pollution as a contribution to premature deaths.  The MPs interviewed were broadly representative of Parliament, with 47 Conservative MPs taking part, along with 40 Labour MPs, 9 Liberal Democrat MPs and 5 MPs from other parties.

Why is this poll so significant?

The simple answer is that it revealed the total ignorance of MPs about the real health impact of air pollution.

The MPs were asked to rank five risk factors in terms of the number of early deaths attributable to them across the UK each year.  The five risks were air pollution, alcoholism, obesity, road traffic accidents and smoking (excluding passive smoking).

The accurate answer is that air pollution is the second biggest public health risk, with only smoking posing a greater risk.

However, across the political parties MPs failed to recognise this.  MPs frequently ranked air pollution as the lowest risk, with an average score of 4.3 out of 5 (with 5 denoting fifth rank).

The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants has estimated that 29,000 premature deaths a year in the UK are attributable to long-term exposure to tiny airborne ‘Particulate Matter’ (PM2.5), with an average loss of life of 11.5 years. Over 4,250 of these premature deaths occur in London, where air pollution is the worst in the UK. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) also represents a major health risk.  A major source of both these dangerous pollutants is diesel exhaust, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently classified as a carcinogen.

It is not as if some MPs haven’t heard about these issues, in some cases over many years.  In March 2010 the House of Commons’ own Environment Audit Select Committee published a report on air quality, which is well worth a careful read.

But clearly few MPs, other than those on this Committee, have read this report.  It could be said it has simply gathered particulate dust over the last three years.

The report’s conclusion includes this powerful statement:

Poor air quality probably causes more mortality and morbidity than passive smoking, road traffic accidents or obesity.  Yet it receives little or no attention in the media and scant attention in Parliament and within Government.

The UK should be ashamed of its poor air quality and the harm this causes.  It is likely to breach EU air quality directives.

The report’s conclusions in relation to the health impact of air pollution and the risk that this country will breach long standing EU air quality legislation have sadly proved to be highly accurate.

It is time that we stopped pretending air pollution was not a serious issue simply because it is not visible.   The scientific and medical evidence is freely available.

We can prevent the premature deaths of tens of thousands of people and avoid costly EU fines if we start to take real steps to reduce air pollution, such as disincentivising diesel cars, ultra low emission zones in city centres, electrifying remaining diesel train lines as well as prioritising switching vans, taxis and buses from diesel to clean electric – it is these vehicles which clock up the most miles and generate the bulk of air pollution in the worst polluted urban centres, yet sadly the move towards electric vehicles is focused almost exclusively on private cars.

At a personal level we can all walk and cycle a bit more and when we do drive a car, choose a petrol or, better still, an electric car rather than a diesel one.

There are many of other measures that need to be taken, however we will never have a comprehensive plan for action until we start to realise the true scale of the health risk posed by air pollution.

Is it too much to ask for MPs to understand the significance of air pollution and to start giving it the priority that the second biggest public health risk of the modern world deserves?

* Cllr Stephen Knight is a member of the London Assembly and a councillor in Richmond.

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  • I completely agree; one of the major problems here is that our air quality is already so bad by European standards that any proposed developments or whatever else comes along almost always fail to pass the regulations. These schemes are handled by local authorities who generally take a very, well, that is annoying, oh well, lets do it anyway because it is important for the economy.

    This is also yet another reason why we need to promote public transport in this country, rather than continually giving into short-sighted public pressures on cars.

  • Morwen Millson 31st May '13 - 5:45pm

    There is also the issue of the quality of the air INSIDE the car!

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