Toxic fumes from vehicle exhausts are breaching legal safety limits on 23 busy streets and endangering the health of people across Scotland, according to the latest government monitoring.
Hazardous concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles belched out by cars, lorries and buses have been found in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Greenock, Rutherglen, Kilmarnock, East Kilbride, Falkirk, Perth, Crieff and elsewhere in 2014.
On 11 streets the annual average levels of pollutants have increased between 2013 and 2014. The worst pollution was detected on Hope Street in Glasgow where nitrogen dioxide levels were 62 per cent above the European legal limit meant to have been met five years ago (see table below).
Health experts say the levels are high enough to cause breathing problems, heart attacks and cancer. They attribute more than 2000 deaths a year in Scotland to the pollution, far more than are killed by road accidents, drugs or alcohol.
Air pollution, they say, has now become a major public health crisis. It is estimated to cost the National Health Service in Scotland up to £2 billion every year.
“Exposure to certain air pollutants can make existing heart conditions worse and can cause heart attacks among children and the elderly,” said Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation. “The current, illegal, amounts of certain pollutants are unacceptable. The government must act to clean up dirty air and protect our hearts.”
Professor David Newby, chair of cardiology at the University of Edinburgh, agreed. Particulate pollution was linked to heart failure, he said. “We have demonstrated that this is because it causes abnormalities in blood vessels and starves the heart of blood.”
Fintan Hurley, the scientific director of the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh and a government advisor on air pollution, warned that the breaches of safety limits were just “the tip of the iceberg”. Health was also being put at risk by pollution that was below the limits.
“Air pollution is a big public health problem because everybody is exposed and there is no completely safe level,” he told the Sunday Herald. “The regulatory limits for fine particles don’t give good protection – even if these were met, there would still be a big problem.”
People had less control over air pollution than they did over smoking or lack of exercise. “The only dependable way to protect against air pollution is to reduce it,” he argued. “We need to get a whole social movement behind cleaner air, as part of the wider movement for a better and fairer Scotland.”
Friends of the Earth Scotland, which is leading the campaign against air pollution, accused the Scottish government of being “painfully slow” to act. A national low emissions strategy promised before the end of 2014 has still to appear.
“Scotland’s streets have dangerous levels of toxic pollution which are breaking legal limits that were due to be met in 2010,” said the environmental group’s campaigner, Emilia Hanna. “The time has come for our polluted air to be treated as the public health crisis it really is.”
She pointed out that children were particularly vulnerable, with pollution known to restrict lung development and cause long-term health problems. “It is unjust that children, who are not in any way responsible, are being forced to suffer the most,” she said.
“We need the Scottish government to cut traffic levels and clean up vehicle emission standards. We need better cycle and walking paths, cleaner public transport, and low emission zones rolled out in cities across the country.”
Local authorities also needed to be given more resources to tackle problems in their areas, Hanna argued. “It is very worrying that the draft budget shows no increase in funds for action on air pollution and suggests the Scottish government plans on spending 200 times as much money next year on building new roads as on tackling deadly air pollution.”
The Scottish government, however, insisted that it was making “excellent progress” in reducing air pollution in partnership with councils. New data showed that nitrogen dioxide levels had dropped by 65 per cent and particulates by 58 per cent between 1990 and 2011, it said, and further decreases were expected in years to come.
“We recognise that there is more to be done to deliver further benefits for human and environmental health where areas of poorer air quality remain,” said a government spokesman.
“We recognise that air pollution disproportionately affects the health of the most vulnerable members of society – the very young, the elderly and those with existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions – and can have a very real impact on quality of life for these individuals.”
A consultation of the low emission strategy was to be launched “later this month”, the spokesman added. “This will set out the contribution that reduced air pollution can make to delivering sustainable economic growth and enhancing the quality of life for communities across Scotland.”
Local authorities pointed to all the measures they were taking to try to improve air quality. Glasgow City Council had required bus operators to invest in cleaner fleets, joined a car rental club, launched a successful bike hire scheme and encouraged electric vehicles.
The City of Edinburgh Council’s transport and environment convener, Councillor Lesley Hinds, maintained that city had seen a ten per cent fall in nitrogen dioxide levels across much of the city. “There are still a small number of areas that need particular attention, and we are making efforts to address them,” she said.
“We are aware that there is still much to be done to limit emissions across Edinburgh. Through implementation of the local transport strategy and meetings of the city’s air quality working group we regularly review air quality management areas to assess pollution, in order to create a cleaner, greener city for everyone.”
Aberdeen City Council’s transport spokesman, Councillor Ross Grant, highlighted a car-sharing club, a fleet of “pollution-free hydrogen buses” and the new western peripheral route. “While we understand that clean air is essential for health and helps to make the city a pleasant place to live, it is not just the responsibility of the city council,” he said. “Everyone can play their part by considering their travel habits and making small, meaningful changes.”
Dundee City Council insisted that there had been a “positive improvement” in aspects of air quality. “The measures that the council have brought in over the past few years are starting to bear fruit with certain of the pollutants that are tested for,” said a spokesman.
Dr Sean Semple, an air pollution expert and senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, agreed that improvements had been made. But the latest figures showed that concentrations of pollutants in many towns and cities still exceeded regulatory standards designed to protect public health, he said.
“To improve air quality further we will need to look carefully at how we organise transport, how we power the vehicles we use and how we can encourage more journeys by walking and cycling,” he added.
“Given that many of the roads listed have exceeded European standards for several years there is a need for stronger action to ensure we comply. Every year of delay means more people suffering unnecessary asthma exacerbations or heart attacks.”
Scotland’s 23 most polluted streets
street / 2014 nitrogen dioxide pollution (micrograms per cubic metre) / 2014 particle pollution (PM10 micrograms per cubic metre)
Hope Street, Glasgow / 65 / 22
Dumbarton Road, Glasgow / 39 / 19
St John's Road, Edinburgh / 60 / no data
Queensferry Road, Edinburgh / 46 / 19
Salamander Street, Edinburgh / 25 / 22
Seagate, Dundee / 55 / 17
Lochee Road, Dundee / 47 / 18
Whitehall Street, Dundee / 43 / no data
Meadowside, Dundee / 40 / 16
Wellington Road, Aberdeen / 48 / 23
Union Street, Aberdeen / 46 / 18
Market Street, Aberdeen / 41 / 35
King Street, Aberdeen / 27 / 20
East Hamilton Street, Greenock / 28 / 18
Main Street, Rutherglen / 41 / 19
Main Street, Chapelhall, North Lanarkshire / 32 / 21
St Marnock Street, Kilmarnock / 30 / 19
Whirlies Roundabout, East Kilbride / 35 / 18
Main Street, Newton, West Lothian/ 21 / 22
West Bridge Street, Falkirk / 42 / 19
High Street, Linlithgow / no data / 18
Atholl Street, Perth / 45 / 22
High Street, Crieff / 24 / 20
The safety limit for nitrogen dioxide is 40 microgrammes per cubic metre, and for particles 18 microgrammes per cubic metre. Both limits were meant to have been met in 2010.
Maps: Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scotland
See related story on pollution fears from Waitrose supermarket here, and an earlier story on polluted streets here. This story was also covered by the BBC, and then by STV, The Independent, The Scotsman, The Press and Journal and others.