Tightened air pollution guidelines put DEFRA on the spot

Campaigners and MPs have leapt on the World Health Organization (WHO) slashing its guideline limits on air quality by calling for the government to accept changes to the Environment Bill made by the House of Lords.

Air pollution is known to stunt lung growth in children. Photograph: Richard Baker / Getty Images Air pollution is known to stunt lung growth in children. Photograph: Richard Baker / Getty Images

In a report issued today, the UN body said that exposure to fine particulates (PM2.5) should not exceed an annual average of 5 micrograms per cubic metre, half of what it recommended in guidelines issued in 2005. Nevertheless, at least 37 towns and cities across the UK still breach the older standard.

For nitrogen dioxide (NO2), it said that exposure should not go beyond 10µg/m3, down from 40µg/m3. Though that is the current EU and UK standard, it is widely and persistently exceeded across the country.

“There is nothing more essential to life than air. And yet, because of air pollution, the simple act of breathing contributes to seven million deaths a year. Almost everyone around the world is exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution,” contributing to the risk of death from Covid-19, heart disease and cancers, said WHO director Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference launching the report this afternoon.

The new figures, which also include tightened recommendations for sulphur dioxide and ozone, reflect a “substantial new body of evidence” of how air pollution affects the human body, especially concentrations formerly considered safe, he said. They are based on evidence gathered from over 500 scientific papers, considered by six systematic reviews.

As a practical tool to encourage the improvement of air quality around the world, it “will have major implications for public health,” Ghebreyesus added.

“The new WHO guidelines make very clear that even low levels of air pollution are dangerous and make people sick over time. We need to rethink how we can effectively reduce the disease burden from air pollution,” said University of Düsseldorf professor of environmental epidemiology Barbara Hoffmann. A joint statement endorsing the guidelines that she co-wrote for a series of global health bodies calls for “a paradigm change from relying solely on fixed limit values” towards aiming to reduce average exposure too – an objective that the government says it has accepted.

Although the government has repeatedly mentioned the WHO’s former 10µg/m3 guideline for PM2.5 in the context of the Environment Bill, it has avoided promising to adopt it. Under its plans, an undisclosed target, currently under discussion with experts, would be set in secondary legislation.

The approach did not satisfy the House of Lords, which voted 181-159 earlier this month to put the WHO’s now-outdated recommendation on the face of the bill itself, to be attained by 2030 at the latest. Environment minister Lord Goldsmith said that the government had resisted signing up to the goal as it would probably require policies to halve traffic and totally ban the consumption of solid fuels in cities.

READ MORE: Environment Bill: The 20 key amendments to be taken to the Commons

Swansea West MP Geraint Davies, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution, said that burning fossil fuels and wood causes 64,000 deaths in the UK each year, “in addition to catastrophic climate change. This is a wakeup call for the UK government to insert legally binding former WHO air pollution limits for PM2.5 of 10µg/m3 in the Environment Bill next month, as proposed by the EFRA select committee and the Air Pollution APPG. As the UK hosts COP26, this would put air pollution centre-stage in our bid to tackle the climate emergency in a way people can easily understand and can act upon.”

It is too late to amend the bill further to include the new 5µg/m3 guideline for PM2.5, as the House of Commons can now only consider the amendments already made by the Lords. But it could, in principle at least, be adopted through secondary legislation in due course.

Andrea Lee, clean air campaigns manager at ClientEarth, said the revised guidelines “must serve as a wake-up call for the UK Government – ministers should be scrambling to act. As the Environmental Bill is currently going through parliament, the government needs to listen to the health evidence, show leadership and get on with tightening air quality standards that better protect people now.”

But Daniel Zeichner, Labour’s acting shadow environment secretary, said that the Conservatives had a record of “inaction and delay” that had allowed “catastrophic levels of air pollution to build up across the country”.

Backing his party’s proposal to establish a legal right to clean air, he added that, “Ministers must accept their defeat in the House of Lords vote on the Environment Bill or we will see this country fall even further behind the World Health Organisation clean air standards.

Rejecting these demands, a DEFRA spokesperson responded that the bill will set “stretching and ambitious targets on air quality” that will be the subject of public consultation early next year.

“We will consider the updated WHO guidelines on PM2.5 to inform the development of air quality targets but we must not underestimate the challenges these would bring particularly in large cities and for people’s daily lives,” he added.

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