SPECIAL REPORT / When a London anti-pollution organisation polled British lawmakers about the greatest risks to public health, most MPs were wrong, ranking traffic accidents or heavy drinking ahead of air pollution as a leading killer of Britons.

“The vast majority of over 100 members of Parliament responding to our survey displayed a shocking level of ignorance about the health impact of air pollution,” said Simon Birkett, head of Clean Air in London, an advocacy group.

“In particular, over two-thirds of Conservative MPs responding said air pollution has less impact than road traffic accidents,” he said on releasing the survey results on 23 May.

Figures crunched by the London-based group show that the cocktail of fine particle emissions comprising gases such as nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) kill some 29,000 people in the United Kingdom each year, while 1,901 people died in traffic crashes in 2011. Only smoking kills more Britons than bad air, government health figures show, an average of 80,000 per year, with as many as 22,000 people dying of alcohol-related causes.

Dirty air across Europe

Environmental and health groups say London if by no means an isolated case. Some of the EU’s deadliest air can be found in Bulgaria and Romania, yet few urban areas escape unhealthy pollutants, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Residents of most large cities in the European Union are exposed to stubbornly high levels of noxious pollutants that in some cases exceed international health standards, including fine particulates produced from emissions of NOx, SO2, ammonia (NH3) and organic compounds.

Transport, along with energy production and agriculture, are leading polluters, EEA figures show. Diesel engines, though they produce lower levels of carbon emissions, produce high NOx emissions that contribute to unhealthy ground-level ozone and smog – although newer vehicles are required to be outfitted with filtering technology.

Britain, like most EU countries, has a spotty record at enforcing the European Commission’s 2008 Air Quality Directive and other laws that are intended to reduce pollutants. The European Commission has taken action against some 20 countries – including the UK - for failing to improve air quality.

But health and environmental groups argue that the Air Quality Directive, the EU’s main pollution-fighting law, needs more teeth to punish states for inaction.

European court to hear clean-air case

In a victory for clean-air activists, the Supreme Court, on 1 May ruled in favour of complaint brought by environmental lawyers who argued that the British government was in breach of the EU rules on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions. NO2 is the part of the NOx family of highly reactive gases that is most harmful to human health.

The case by the environmental law group ClientEarth now heads to the European Court of Justice at Luxembourg.

ClientEarth contends that the government has done little since the complaint was filed two years ago to address Britain’s pollution comply with Article 22 of the Air Quality Directive, which requires countries to file air quality plans to the European Commission by 2015. London has sought a 10-year extension.

“If anything their attitude has got worse,” ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews told EurActiv in a telephone interview. “The only really new policy that the government have seems to be to lobby to weaken the nitrogen dioxide limits through the EU Year of Air process.

“In terms actual policies on the ground to tackle air pollution, I can’t see that any progress has been made. I’m sure that the government’s aim is to do nothing and hope that they can water down air pollution laws.”

Lawyers for Defra, the UK’s environment department, acknowledged in court that the government has failed to meet its EU obligations. But they countered that they asked the European Commission for an extension to deal with pollution in London and 15 other regions mentioned in the ClientEarth case.

Activists ‘waking up’

The case marks a rare example of a civic organisation challenging a national government for alleged failure to comply with EU law, and Andrews said the ClientEarth complaint and a few similar cases in other EU states could set an example for legal action.

“What we are seeing is NGOs waking up to the fact that they can use EU litigation to go to their national courts to enforce clean air laws, and this is very exciting,” he said.

In part, authorities are hoping new emission standards on vehicles will address some of the urban emissions problems. The rules are designed to gradually reduce harmful pollutants, including NOx emissions from diesel engines.

The Euro 5 and 6 vehicle-emissions standards cover carbon monoxide (CO), NOx and particulate matter produced by diesel exhaust and also set lower CO thresholds for emissions from petrol and natural gas.

NOx emissions standards set under Euro 5 in 2009 were tightened by 60% from those introduced under Euro 3 in 2000, according to the non-profit International Council on Clean Transportation, and Euro 6 imposes further reductions for all vehicles by 1 September 2015.

Still, health experts are concerned about the years it could take for the standards to reach their potential since the standards apply only to new vehicles. Some studies say bad air causes nearly 500,000 premature deaths per year in the EU – 0.1% of the bloc’s population – while the EEA contends that shifting to electric vehicles and other anti-pollution measures could cut the toll to 230,000 by 2020.

Besides causing respiratory and cardiovascular complications, high nitrogen and ozone levels damage vegetation, soil, water and buildings. Pollution reduces every European’s life expectancy by 8.5 months, according to the EEA.

An Olympic moment

London’s notorious air pollution – blamed on dense, diesel-powered congestion – was a major concern for the city’s image-makers and organisers of the 2012 Olympic Games. Residents and commuters were urged to switch to public transport, walking and cycling to help tourists and athletes breathe a little easier.

Defra, Britain’s environment department, has acknowledged that indigenous emissions also contribute to pollution in other EU states, while blaming Ireland and countries across the Channel – namely Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands – for being the main culprits in sulphur and nitrogen deposition in the UK.

But Simon Birkett, the founder of the Clean Air in London campaign group who last year used the Olympics to press for changes to air quality, says his group’s survey shows there is too little awareness about the impact of pollution on people.

“The most valuable thing [from this survey] is that a lot of people will be quite shocked when they see the levels of ignorance among MPs, who are really quite sophisticated people. So this is probably a pretty good snapshot of how the general society ranks these things.”

“We’ve been trying to raise the profile of this issue, including through two [parliamentary] select committee enquiries, and yet we have this astonishingly high level of ignorance.”

He said he hoped the survey, conducted by Politics Home in April, and a new smartphone air quality app released by Clean Air in London would lead to pressure for change.