The recently formed Doctors Against Diesel group is campaigning for greater awareness of the health impacts of diesel emissions and for action to reduce the number of vehicles using the polluting fuel in towns and cities.
Air pollution from sources including factories and vehicles, particularly diesel engines, is linked to the early deaths of about 40,000 people a year in the UK – and causes problems such as heart and lung diseases and asthma.
London saw legal annual limits for pollution breached on some busy roads in the first week of January.
Nearly 300 health professionals have written to Theresa May, highlighting evidence of the impacts of pollutants including nitrogen dioxide and soot, particularly for children, and calling for a diesel reduction initiative.
Professor Jonathan Grigg of Queen Mary University of London and founding member of Doctors Against Diesel said: “There is overwhelming evidence that locally generated sooty particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide is harming children’s health.
“Cutting diesel emissions would therefore have an immediate impact on children’s personal exposure, and improve their long-term health.”
Reducing pollution exposure for children and encouraging them to cycle and walk more would be a “major public health advance – and must be done as soon as possible”, he said.
Professor John Middleton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said: “Diesel is the primary source of nitrogen dioxide in urban areas and is linked to health effects that begin before birth and extend throughout the life course, from childhood lung development and asthma, to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and dementia.
“It is time for diesel to be recognised as the health emergency that it is.”
In Scotland St John’s Road in Edinburgh is one of the most polluted routes in the country.
Figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders show diesel vehicles continue to have a significant share of the market.
Some 1.29 million new diesel cars were registered last year, representing a market share of 47.7 per cent, down from 48.5 per cent in 2015.
The letter comes as research suggests commuters using public transport are being exposed to up to eight times more pollution than car users.