Fumes from vehicle exhausts breached air pollution safety limits at 26 urban sites across Scotland last year and put the health of millions of people at risk, according to government monitoring results.
There were toxic concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles emitted by cars, lorries and buses in the streets of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Paisley, Bearsden, Rutherglen, Perth, Falkirk and several other towns in 2012 (see table below).
According to experts, the levels are high enough to cause breathing problems and heart attacks. Up to 3,000 people are officially estimated to die every year from air pollution in Scotland, compared to 190 deaths from road accidents.
The worst pollution was at Hope Street in the centre of Glasgow, raising doubts as to whether the city’s air will be safe to breath for the thousands of athletes and visitors expected to flock to the Commonwealth Games in the summer of 2014.
“Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to people's health,” said Dr Richard Dixon, the new director of Friends of the Earth Scotland. “Fumes from cars, lorries and buses kill off at least 10 times the number who die in road crashes every year.”
He pointed out that some of the targets to cut air pollution were set in the late 1990s and were meant to have been met by 2005. “Yet we still have air pollution at dangerous levels on streets across Scotland,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“Both the Scottish government and our local authorities have failed to take this issue seriously for years and between them they need to do more than make promises they don't deliver. We need action on traffic levels and the types of vehicles allowed on our most polluted streets.”
Dr Sean Semple, a leading air pollution expert from the University of Aberdeen, said there was good evidence that the tiny particles produced by combustion engines were harmful to health. “Those with existing heart or breathing problems are particularly vulnerable,” he said.
He pointed out that pollution was only monitored in a limited number of places. “The current number and location of sampling sites can lead to areas with particularly high levels being missed,” he warned.
The Scottish government accepted that there were “localised hotspots of poorer air quality in a number of urban areas”. But it insisted that air pollution targets were being met across most of Scotland.
“We recognise that we must build on achievements to date and continue to take action to improve air quality across Scotland,” said a government spokesman. Efforts were being made to cut pollution in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games, including the introduction of “low emission zones” at venues.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) said councils were working to reduce pollution levels. “City councils have participated in Scottish Government funding programmes for retrofitting buses in the four cities covered by air quality management areas,” said a COSLA spokeswoman.
Scotland’s most polluted streets
sites / nitrogen dioxide / tiny particles (both average levels for 2012 in micrograms per cubic metre)
Hope Street, Glasgow / 72.5 / 23.6
Raith Interchange, South Lanarkshire / 62.9 / 25.5
Wellington Road, Aberdeen / 58.8 / 27.6
St John's Road, Edinburgh / 57.9 / not known
Lochee Road, Dundee / 55.4 / 16.4
Atholl Street, Perth / 55.1 / 24.9
Union Street, Aberdeen / 55.0 / 25.0
Queensferry Road, Edinburgh / 54.5 / 18.5
Meadowside, Dundee / 54.5 / 18.6
Central Road, Paisley / 50.7 / not known
Seagate, Dundee / 50.4 / 14.2
Broxburn, West Lothian / 47.4 / 16.1
Market Street, Aberdeen / 46.8 / 20.7
Bearsden, East Dunbartonshire / 43.6 / 17.3
Whitehall Street, Dundee / 43.0 / not known
Rutherglen, South Lanarkshire / 39.0 / 18.5
Bridge Street, Falkirk / 37.9 / 22.1
Dumbarton Road, Glasgow / 36.0 / 21.0
Chapelhall, North Lanarkshire / 35.3 / 18.2
High Street, Irvine / 31.7 / 18.0
King Street, Aberdeen / 30.7 / 22.0
Salamander Street, Edinburgh / 30.1 / 26.7
Saint Marnock Street, Kilmarnock / 30.1 / 18.5
Cupar, Fife / 29.7 / 18.3
Crieff, Perth and Kinross / 25.7 / 20.5
Pathhead, Midlothian / not known / 18.7
The air pollution safety limit for nitrogen dioxide is 40 micrograms per cubic metres, and the air quality target for tiny particles is 18 micrograms per cubic metre.