Sun, Mar 24, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Waking up to a public health crisis

The UK’s air pollution is getting worse, with traffic fumes provoking increased instances of asthma and heart attacks. So why isn’t more being done about it?

By John Vidal  /  The Guardian, LONDON

A test conducted in 2011 by the UK government to measure emissions from vehicles in everyday use concluded that, while petrol emissions had improved by 96 percent, “emissions of NOx [nitrogen oxide] from diesel cars and light goods vehicles have not decreased for the past 15-20 years.”

“The pollution mix has changed over time as traffic has emerged as the predominate source. It’s not only the small, nanosize of the particles, but also their changed composition and their interaction with gaseous co-pollutants that give us cause for concern. The lower levels of these particles in today’s air in no way suggests they are any less harmful than the historic pollutant episodes,” Mudway said.

Meanwhile, there are many more diesels than before. They have increased across Europe 35 percent since 1990 and, the Society of Motor Manufacturers said, more than 50 percent of all cars registered in Britain are now diesel, up from 23 percent in 2002. One reason is that cities and government have offered tax incentives for diesels.

“Air pollution remains one of the most under-addressed public health problems, comparable to obesity and alcohol, but some government policies such as encouraging diesel vehicles in cities, are making the problem even worse. It is crucial that perverse incentives that encourage polluting vehicles and technologies are removed,” Conservative think tank Policy Exchange said.

Last week, ClientEarth, an organization of activist environmental lawyers, took the government to the highest court in the land over its failure to meet European laws on nitrogen pollution. The five supreme court judges, who only hear cases “of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population,” must decide whose responsibility it is to enforce European laws.

“The case raises a fundamental question about the rule of law. If the supreme court is unable to give an effective remedy to a clear and admitted breach of EU environmental law, there are grave constitutional consequences. There is now the distinct possibility that this will be referred to the European court of justice,” ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews said.

If it is ruled that Europe should have no say in whether its laws are implemented, then the government need do nothing more and pollution will go on unchecked. If ClientEarth win, it may take Europe years to act. Either way, Malachi Chadwick, Rosalind Dalton and 5.4 million people with asthma will have to wait for respite.

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