There is a growing realisation of the threats to public health from air pollution. In fact, breathing polluted air has become second only to smoking in the health damage it causes. About 70% of air pollution comes from transport, with the balance mainly coming from agriculture and domestic heating.
A recent government scientific report revealed that UK air pollution causes 29,000 deaths and contributes to over 200,000 premature deaths per year. In my own constituency, the south east of England, the problem of air pollution particularly affects both city dwellers and the thousands of people who commute into London.
It is children, the elderly and those people with existing respiratory illnesses - almost one in five of the population according to a recent poll - that suffer most from air pollution. Young children and toddlers in buggies are particularly vulnerable to pollution because they are at exhaust pipe level, where the level of pollutants is often highest.
Already this year we've seen law-breaking levels of pollution in Putney, south west London and we can expect many more breaches of the legislation across the country. We're bound to see more examples like that of St Bede Primary School in Winchester which I visited last year, where parents, children and teachers are extremely worried about high levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide at the school. The same breaches of air safety affect the people I represent in cities such as Brighton & Hove, Canterbury and Southampton.
With a situation as serious as this you'd think that the British government would be doing everything in its power to protect the population from harm. It is difficult to imagine for instance, that governments would fail to act on smoking.
Many countries, including the UK, are failing to comply with limits set under the EU's Air Quality Directive, despite the fact that these limits were negotiated and endorsed by all member states themselves more than ten years ago.
But that's not all. As well as failing to comply with existing European legislation, the British government is also trying water down proposals for new pollution levels to be debated this year. Campaigners at Clean Air London have established that the UK is planning to conspire with other member states to weaken air quality standards. In particular the coalition administration wants to avoid strict regulation on nitrogen dioxide because the limits are so regularly breached.
The good news in all of this is that significant change is not without precedent. Back in the late 1980s Europe faced the significant challenge of dealing with acid rain. Many doubted the chances of international cooperation on the issue whilst others, including the Thatcher government in Britain, actively stood in the way of progress. Eventually, however, even the United Kingdom signed up to the so-called 'sulphur protocol'. The result: An 80-90% decrease in acid rain causing emissions.
This current UK government needs to wake up to the realities here. Air pollution is a serious health risk and one which they can do something about. Almost 80% of British people think the EU should propose more measures to tackle air quality related problems. 2013 is to be the 'year or air' in the European Union.
The big question is: Will the British government get behind cleaning up our air or will they continue to be an obstacle to progress?
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