Air pollution levels a ‘medical emergency’ in Scots cities

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Fresh criticism has been directed at the Scottish Government over a lack of urgency in driving down deadly air pollution in Scotland’s streets, with calls for the issue to treated as a “health emergency”.

Leading medical charities have called for “quicker and bolder action” to tackle the thousands of deaths every year linked to dirty air, including a reduction in conditions like lung disease and respiratory illness being placed at the heart of a new national strategy.

There is growing evidence about the effect of air pollution on human health. Picture: Getty Images

There is growing evidence about the effect of air pollution on human health. Picture: Getty Images

The warning comes just weeks after two experts walked out on a Scottish Government strategy group on air pollution over the lack of “ambition”.

The Scottish Government insists its recent Clean Air for Scotland (CAFS) strategy sets out an ambitious approach to reducing pollutants.

MSPs will today hear calls for a national public health campaign across Scotland to raise awareness of the real dangers of emissions as they take evidence from health chiefs and campaigners.

Katherine Byrne of Chest, Heart and Stroke Scotland, warned exposure to polluting particles from diesel vehicles was “strongly linked” to heart attacks and angina, in a submission to Holyrood’s health committee.

“Air pollution should be treated as a health emergency and not constrained by the current slow pace of negotiation and action,” she states.

“Given the significant harm caused by air pollution, the national strategy is not being delivered with sufficient urgency. Air quality standards are not being met – and we have not seen improvements since the publication of the national strategy.

“The action needed to tackle air pollution is making slow progress, with just one low emission zone (LEZ) to be in place by the end of this year, which will make a marginal difference to the national problem.”

Air pollution is already responsible for more than 2,500 early deaths every year in Scotland, according to environmental campaigners, and costs the Scottish economy more than £1.1 billion annually.

A report last year by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found pollution levels in Glasgow were worse than London.

The British Lung Foundation says the success of the new strategy should also be measured against public health improvements.
“We think an improvement in respiratory health could be measured to assess the effectiveness of air quality interventions and policies,” it states in a submission.

“Outcomes could include a reduction in respiratory emergency admissions to hospital.”

New low emission zones (LEZ), banning gas guzzling vehicles from city centres have been earmarked by ministers, but firm plans are so far only in place for Glasgow. The foundation says a “network” of such initiatives should be introduced in town and city centres across Scotland.

“More action is needed to tackle poor air quality in Scotland,” the foundation states.

Better monitoring of pollution levels and public health alerts are needed around schools hospitals and GP practices, the organisation adds, so that Scots are aware of local pollution levels and how to deal with them.

Independent “real word” testing for vehicles is also called for to give the public better information before buying a new car, following the recent scandal with Volkswagen, which was found to be fiddling the emissions results for some of its diesel vehicles.

The issue is of “increasing concern” for patients supported by the charity.

“They want to see quicker and bolder action at national and local level to ensure everyone has the right to breathe clean air,” the foundation said.

Asthma UK has called for a reduction in all types of vehicles, including electric cars that are seen as the solution by Scottish ministers.

Although the charity backs the shift from petrol and diesel cars to battery-powered vehicles, it warns the latter will still give off emissions “through brake and tyre wear, even if exhaust-related emissions are reduced”.

The body also warns of a variation among health boards and councils in Scotland in dealing with the issue, with some “more actively” addressing the issue than others.

“We would recommend a more uniformed response, which would help to avoid health inequality caused by poor air quality,” the charity said.

Ministers were forced to defend their clean air strategy last year when it emerged Professor James Curran and Emilia Hanna had quit the strategy group, citing frustration by slow progress and lack of “ambition” in the planned low emission zone for Glasgow.

A report by Friends of the Earth Scotland this year found Edinburgh’s St John’s Road, Hope Street in Glasgow and Dundee’s Seagate were among the most polluted Streets in Scotland.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government last night insisted ministers were “fully committed” to tackling air pollution.

“We welcome recognition, from Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland among others, of our ambitious measures and leadership to address air quality concerns as set out in our Cleaner Air for Scotland strategy,” he said.

“This includes doubling the active travel budget and the commitment to continue to work with industry to phase out the need for new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032 – eight years ahead of the UK government’s target.

“Furthermore, we have also committed to introducing low emission zones into Scotland’s four biggest cities between 2018 and 2020, and then into all other Air Quality Management Areas where evidence suggests such mitigation will be effective.”