Air pollution is now said to rival tobacco smoke as fatal to human health. In this article, Jon Herbert considers what the future might bring in the opening rounds of a war on poor air quality.

New 60mph speed restrictions on the M1, in line with new EU air quality levels to cut traffic emissions, could mark the start of a major UK drive. This drive is intended to take carcinogenic substances out of the atmosphere that, globally, may be responsible for 223,000 lung cancer deaths.

Until recently, fast motorway traffic was considered to be a boost for business efficiency. Now, high speed is being directly linked to unacceptable health risks caused not only by respiratory and heart diseases, but also lung and possibly bladder cancers. The Government’s new proposal to apply a 60mph restriction along a 32-mile-long stretch of the M1 from 7am to 7pm, between junctions 28 and 35a running past Sheffield, Matlock and Chesterfield, is a dramatic step towards meeting increasingly stringent EU air quality guidelines. The longer-term solution is expected to be an improvement in automotive technology that will progressively replace existing high-polluting vehicles. However, under government consultations, the new speed restriction proposal could last for several years. The move also poses a series of difficult, long-term questions about the future balance between global business recovery, growth and development, human health and well-being, and the role and ability of technology to create an environment in which all these priorities can be met mutually — if indeed they can.

Motorway madness

The relationship between Britons and their cars is always a touchy one. While lower speed limits, including 20mph zones, are seen to be desirable on residential urban roads, until recently, high-speed motorway links were being viewed as compatible with economic business recovery. Now, the pollution savings that can be made by a 10mph restriction in maximum speed are becoming a major issue.

However, nothing has been written in stone. The Highways Agency points out that, although the proposed M1 speed restrictions have been put out for consultation, the current 70mph motorway limit has “adverse impacts on air quality”. However, it adds that a reduction would also cut congestion, increase the motorway’s capacity to carry traffic, and so improve reliable journey times. The agency is not able to say for how many years the restrictions might have to be in place, but notes that there could be flexibility in terms of restriction times and a foreshortening of the affected length of motorway if emission levels fall.

The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) notes that this is a landmark proposal and that variable speed limits have not been used before to meet environmental legislation. It adds that the move could be in possible conflict with the current situation whereby the stretch of M1 in question operates as a “smart” motorway on which motorists can now use the hard shoulder to minimise congestion. The motoring organisation is also concerned that a precedent is perhaps being set for other motorways and that this could have a “negative impact on business efficiency and individual mobility”. Nevertheless, the RAC stresses the link between speed and emissions, and the dramatic effect a relatively small 10mph reduction can make.

EU action

The EU’s long-awaited proposals to improve air quality were announced at the end of 2013, with the aim of setting tighter Member State limits for six major pollutants by 2020 and 2030. The focus will be on stemming pollution at source, and follows a three-year air quality legislation and policy review that formed part of the 2013 “Year of Air”. Up to three more years could be needed to finalise and implement the proposed changes unveiled by European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potočnik, with a cost benefit of between €40 billion and €140 billion annually by 2030. It is expected that the changes could help to save many of the current 420,000 premature deaths attributed to air pollution.

The proposals include a stricter National Emission Ceiling Directive (NECD) for the six pollutants. Current NECD limits restrict sulphur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), ammonia (NH3), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Now, particulate matter (PM2.5) and methane (CH4) are to be added to this list. Source-specific measures, such as incentives to reduce emissions from shipping and agricultural ammonia, are also included. No revisions have yet been proposed for the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD) introduced in 2010. Local limits for air pollutants most harmful to humans have been set, although the European Commission considers the AAQD to be currently ineffective in meeting World Health Organization (WHO) air quality pollution guidelines.

However, the Commission says that tighter air quality standards will be ineffective unless “we see real cuts in air pollution from the main sources”. In fact, stricter standards could be counter-productive because many Member States are failing to meet present standards, it says.

There will also be a new directive to cut pollution from medium-sized combustion facilities. This will include local energy plants for communities, large buildings and small businesses in the 1–50MWth range. Limits for NOx, SO2 and particulates will be set to close a “gap” in EU legislation for plants of this type and size. In tandem, a publication called A Clean Air Programme for Europe has been released outlining the strategy for tackling air pollution up to 2030, and stressing the need for more research and international co-operation.

WHO reveals cancer connections

WHO says there is now direct evidence that pollutants from car exhausts, power stations, agricultural and industrial emissions, plus domestic heating systems can cause lung cancer and has classified them as such. This sends a strong message that Governments should now take decisive action.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of WHO, now ranks air pollution alongside tobacco smoke, ultra-violet (UV) radiation and plutonium. It warns that the air we breathe has become a mixture of cancer-causing pollution, with recent data that some 223,000 lung cancer deaths globally can be attributed to air pollution. Of these, more than half are thought to be in China and other Asian Pacific countries where rapid industrialisation has caused intense smog. The IARC’s data also suggests a possible link with levels of bladder cancer. The findings have been reinforced by the World Cancer Research Fund International, which says it confirms the need for Governments, industry and multinational bodies to urgently address the environmental causes of cancer.

The east is grey

China is reported to be launching an £180 billion (1.7 trillion yuan) programme to clean up errant power stations and unacceptable levels of traffic fumes. The initiative is based on green technology solutions that the Government is said to be confident will end the creation of dense smog that has forced the virtual shutdown of major cities such as Shanghai and Harbin on particularly bad days. Beijing is thought to regularly exceed safe limits set by WHO.

As an early step, pollution monitoring is taking place and China is looking to the historic precedents set by London, Los Angeles and Tokyo in tackling severe urban air pollution. The initiative should see the closure of urban power stations burning coal. Many could become gas-fired. To curb growth in Beijing’s current car population of five million, a new lottery permit system, with very few winners, is being introduced. Green cars will be given priority. There will also be a major push towards renewables that should see greater reliance on hydroelectric, wind and solar power. A major cause of concern is said to be the rise in smog density and frequency that are elevating the presence of PM2.5 and PM10 particles. These are created by minute particles of unburnt fuel, small enough to invade not only the lungs, but also enter the blood stream. The release of pollution data would help to reveal whether WHO limits are being regularly exceeded by many multiples, as is suspected.

Last reviewed 4 February 2014