UK Government to be forced into air quality action by July 2017

A High Court judge has ruled that the Government must produce an improved air quality ruling by July next year to bring pollution within legal limits.

Seemingly at odds with many announcements in today’s Autumn Statement, the decision follows the success of the case by environmental lawyers ClientEarth earlier this month when a High Court ruling found that the Government broke the law by failing to tackle illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution as quickly as possible‎.

Now the High Court has given the Government just eight months to come up with a new plan, rejecting the Government’s longer timetable as “too leisurely”.

Under the announcement by Mr Justice Garnham, the Government has until 24 April 2017 to produce a draft plan with a final version due by 31 July 2017.

The judge also told the Government to publish the technical data on which it was basing its plans. The original judgment in the case ruled that Defra had used over-optimistic estimates of future emissions from diesel cars.

James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth, commented: “The Government has said throughout this process that it takes air pollution seriously. Until now, its actions have not lived up to this claim. Now is the time for the Government to prove that it truly cares about people’s health and the environment and take decisive action to tackle illegal air pollution in this country.”

The original air quality plan proposed six clean air zones in London, Birmingham, Derby, Southampton, Nottingham, and Leeds. During the hearing today, the judge suggested the government might need to include Glasgow and the government’s lawyer, Ian Rogers QC, also mentioned South Wales.

Alan Andrews, ClientEarth’s air quality lawyer, added: “A total of 37 out of 43 zones in the UK have illegal levels of air pollution. The Government will now have to show it has the ambition necessary to tackle the problem. If they are at all serious about complying with the court order, a national network of clean air zones must be part of their plans, which means including the dirtiest diesel cars and creating far more than the current six which are planned. Otherwise, the risk is the problem will just be pushed elsewhere.”

City pollution is “undoubtedly worse than we’re told,” says air quality expert and Respro owner Harry Cole.

Air Pollution – the facts

What pollutants are out there?

Pollution is made of two distinct categories:

  • Gases and Vapours
  • Particulates

Most types of pollution can be put into one or other category.

  1. Gases & Vapours:
  • Nitrogen Oxides
  • Sulphur Dioxide
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Low level Ozone
  • Hydrocarbon Chemicals

These pollutants all require an activated carbon filter media to absorb them.

  1. Particulates:
  • Asbestos dust from brake linings
  • Pollen
  • Road dust
  • Black smoke from diesel emissions
  • Any other material which is solid in nature

There are two categories of particulates: inhalable and respirable

  • Inhalable particulates: are the particles big enough to be trapped within the nasal hairs and the mucous membranes at the back of the throat.
  • Respirable particulates: are the particles that pass beyond the nasal hairs and the mucous membranes of the throat and pass into the lung sacs and subsequent blood barrier. These particulates can carry carcinogenic chemicals used in petrol (benzene, pyrene, etc) to the blood barrier.

The science of what is and isn’t dangerous

Particulate Matter comes in a wide range of sizes, measured in micrometres or ‘microns’. Like inches, metres and miles, a micron is a unit of measurement for distance, a very small distance. There are 1,000 microns in one millimetre and about the same width of a hair on your head.

Particulates that are 50+ microns in diameter can be seen by the naked eye, but as they get smaller they tend to invisibility. (The Invisible Threat)

Particulates less than 10 microns in diameter (less than PM10) start to pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into the back of the throat region causing irritation and coughing.

Particulates less than 2.5 microns in diameter (less thanPM2.5) which include sub micron particulates (less than PM1) are referred to as fine or ‘respirable’  particulates and are believed to pose the greatest health risk.

Because of their size, the normal human filtering system, the nose and its nasal hair, are unable to trap these fine particulates. They pass through the upper airways and deep into the fine capillaries and air sacs which is where the oxygen exchange occurs to oxygenate the blood.

Current concerns are that very small amounts of toxic or carcinogenic chemicals like the VOC Pyrene, are carried on the particle and taken to the point of exchange, which allows for the potential of the chemical to be absorbed into the blood stream.

A typical sample of black smoke emitted from one of the more popular people carrying vehicles, would include particulates from 100 microns in size to particulates less than one micron in size.