NEARLY half of Edinburgh's busiest streets are failing to meet European air quality targets, as pollution in the city worsens.
Latest figures released by the city council under freedom of information laws show emissions levels across the city have got worse. Average levels of nitrogen dioxide on Torphichen Place and West Maitland Street, close to Haymarket Station, and at a westbound section of St John's Road in Corstorphine, came in at more than twice the EU target.
Among the new pollution hotspots are Easter Road and Bernard Street in Leith, together with Roseburn Terrace.
Long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide can affect lung function and increase the risk of respiratory symptoms such as bronchitis – especially in children.
In 2010, the EU targets on air quality become mandatory, and the council faces being hit by fines of thousands of pounds.
City leaders today said trams and an increased focus on park-and-rides would help cut pollution levels across the city. But opposition and environmental groups said the worsening of air pollution could be traced back to the failure of 2005's road tolls referendum.
Mark Sydenham, spokesman for Friends of the Earth Edinburgh, said: "This probably won't please a lot of people, but air pollution was one of the key arguments for congestion charging in the referendum, and it looks as if the worst that was predicted then is now happening.
"These levels are deeply concerning, especially given the fact we will be facing EU fines within a few years."
The EU annual average objective for nitrogen dioxide is 40 micrograms per cubic metre.
West Maitland Street and Palmerston Place came in at 86 micrograms – the worst level in the city. Eighteen out of the 41 monitored streets in Edinburgh are now failing EU pollution targets. Council officials are currently working on a air quality action plan aimed at introducing measures to cut nitrogen dioxide levels.
Councillor Robert Aldridge, the city's environment leader, said: "There is currently a pattern being observed in many cities that shows nitrogen dioxide levels are not falling in line with predicted emissions. There are many suggestions as to why this might be. One is that the increasing number of diesel vehicles on our roads are emitting higher levels of nitrogen dioxide.
"We have introduced a number of measures aimed at improving air quality in the city in recent years – for example the introduction of a number of park-and-ride sites.
"Infrastructure is currently being developed for the introduction of trams which will carry up to 200 passengers at a time with zero emissions. We also try to encourage residents to use public transport, walk or cycle rather than driving."
Councillor Maureen Child, the city's Labour environment spokeswoman, said air quality was a "big challenge".
"It is one which we predicted during the congestion charge debate," she said. "Sadly I think the chickens are coming home to roost and I still see no way we can make serious inroads into the air pollution problem.
"Congestion charging is off the agenda but I personally feel we will be forced to look again at this."
Edinburrgh City Council