Category Archives: Contamination

Recent Research – The impact of air pollution on human health

Evidence shows that traffic-related air pollution is a contributory factor to a wide range of diseases

But the most harmful pollutants are currently unregulated

September 22nd 2017

The last few years has seen an increasing amount of research into the impact of traffic-related air pollution on human health. Much of the research has focused on the harmful impact of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM), tiny particles that are emitted by diesel vehicles and other sources. In the UK, nitrogen dioxide emissions have exceeded the legal limit as set by the EU for the last seven years and have been the subject of a long-running legal dispute – see last month’s article ‘Air Pollution in the UK – Seven years of illegal NO2 emissions’. Nitrogen dioxide emissions are known to cause breathing difficulties and have been linked to respiratory symptoms and illnesses such as asthma and bronchitis, while PM particles have been found in the bloodstream, the lungs, and more recently in the brain, with research suggesting links with cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. [1] In this article, we look at a cross-section of the most significant findings, including research on the impact of air pollution on children, research on the possible links between air pollution and a number of illnesses (such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurological disorders), and the implications of this research for measures to tackle traffic-related air pollution.

The impact of air pollution on London’s schoolchildren

Two years ago, researchers based at King’s College and Queen Mary College, University of London, published the results of a research project that set out to investigate the effects of air pollution on schoolchildren living within London’s Low Emission Zone. The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research, NHS health trusts and other bodies. The study focused on 8-9 year-old children from schools located at various distances from a number of air pollution hotspots in the east London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets. The Low Emission Zone, set up in 2008, was predicted to have a significant effect on PM10 and NO2 concentrations, and the researchers hypothesized that “reduced exposure to traffic emissions would result in a reduction in the prevalence of respiratory/allergic symptoms associated with traffic-related pollutants.” [2]

Data was collected over three consecutive winters, November to March, 2008 to 2011. Respiratory and allergic symptoms were assessed using parent-completed questionnaires. These were collected at each visit, when health assessments were also carried out to examine lung function and collect biological samples. Around 1,800 children at 23 schools were invited to take part in the study, with around a thousand (56%) deciding to participate. Computer modelling techniques were used to gather data on air pollution exposure for the duration of the study (including measurements of NO2 and PM10 levels). Statistical analysis of the data “confirmed the previous association between traffic-related air pollutant exposures and symptoms of current rhinitis,” and also identified a direct correlation between exposure to air pollution and a reduction in lung growth. Speaking to the Sunday Times, Ian Mudway, a respiratory toxicologist at King’s College London, said: “The data shows that traffic pollution stops children’s lungs growing properly. The evidence suggests that by 8-9 years of age, children from the most polluted areas have 5 to 10 per cent less lung capacity and they may never get that back.” [3]

“No evidence that Low Emission Zones can reduce pollution”

Additionally the researchers found that, in contrast to the predicted effect, the Low Emission Zone “did not reduce ambient air pollution levels, or affect the prevalence of respiratory/allergic symptoms over the period studied.” They conclude: “Importantly, the London Low Emission Zone has not significantly improved air quality within the city, or the respiratory health of the resident population in its first three years of operation. This highlights the need for more robust measures to reduce traffic emissions.” [4] Professor Chris Griffiths, who coordinated the research, is a GP and Professor of Primary Care at Queen Mary College, University of London, and the Co-Director of the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research. He said it was very disappointing that the Low Emission Zone, “which was specifically designed as a major public health intervention, has so far brought about no change. This raises questions over the government’s current consultation on air quality, which is based around the idea of creating similar low emission zones in up to 30 other polluted urban areas. There appears to be no evidence that these low emission zones can reduce pollution or improve health.” [5] In fact, these plans were dropped in the Government’s latest plans to tackle air pollution, as we explained in last month’s article, in favour of the long-term ambition of ending the sale of all new diesel vehicles by 2040, whilst in the shorter-term local authorities will be expected to come up with air quality plans.

The social inequalities of air pollution

The impact of air pollution on London’s schoolchildren was also the subject of a report commissioned by the Greater London Authority which was completed in 2013. Last year, however, the Guardian revealed that Boris Johnson, during his period of office as London’s Mayor, had prevented the full report from being published. [6] Speaking to the Guardian, the report’s author Katie King said that the Greater London Authority had publicly disclosed the positive conclusions in the report – namely, that the number of people exposed to illegal NO2 emissions would fall by 2020 – but had held back the negative findings. “The crux of the report was about understanding the inequalities of air pollution,” she said, “so they chose not to make public the findings regarding inequality. The information that they did take from the report was the positive, that exposure was predicted to fall in the future.” The positive findings were highlighted by the Mayor in a progress report on his air quality strategy, delivered in July 2015. These were the predictions that the number of Londoners exposed to illegal NO2 emissions would drop from 1 million in 2015 to around 300,000 in 2020 as a result of the Mayor’s policies on Low Emission Zones. The Mayor’s progress report also noted that deprived communities were more likely to be exposed to poor air quality, but the Guardian says that “it failed to mention the unpublished report’s revelation that in 2010, 433 of the city’s 1,777 primary schools were in areas where pollution breached the EU limits for NO2. Of those, 83% were considered deprived schools, with more than 40% of pupils on free school meals. Of the remaining schools located in areas below the pollution limit, less than a fifth were in deprived areas.” In response, Boris Johnson denied that there had been any cover-up, saying he had highlighted the problem of primary schools and poor air quality in areas of deprivation. However, the Guardian reports that his office did not deny he had stopped the full report from being released. And given the results of the NHS-funded research, mentioned above, the predictions on the impact of London’s Low Emission Zone may turn out to be unduly optimistic as regards the effects on human health.

The BREATHE project: A study of air pollution and child development

Further evidence of the impact of traffic-related air pollution on child development has come from Spain, where a number of research institutions collaborated on a project called BREATHE (also known as ‘Brain Development and Air Pollution Ultra-fine Particles in Schoolchildren’), which was funded by the European Research Council. [7] The research was based in Barcelona and set out to evaluate the impact of air pollution exposure on cognitive development in primary schoolchildren. The researchers say that air pollution concentrations in Barcelona are among the highest in Europe, partly attributed to high traffic density with a large proportion of diesel-powered vehicles (around 50%), relatively low precipitation, high population density, and an urban landscape characterized by high-storey buildings and narrow streets, which reduces the dispersion of pollutants. Of the 416 schools in Barcelona, 40 schools were selected to obtain the greatest contrast in traffic-related air pollution levels, as measured by NO2 concentrations. Of the 40 schools, 39 accepted the invitation to participate and about 2,700 schoolchildren took part in the project. [8]

Air pollution increases the risk of developing myopia

Data gathered from the BREATHE project and published in April this year showed a link between exposure to traffic-related air pollution and myopia in schoolchildren aged 7 to 10 years of age, as measured by the use of spectacles. In their introduction to the study, the authors state:

“Exposure to traffic-related air pollution is associated with a wide range of adverse health outcomes, with the lungs being one of the most commonly affected organs, mainly because of their constant direct exposure to air pollutants. Similarly, the eyes are directly exposed to air pollution, making them a prime target organ for the adverse effects of such an exposure. In addition to the short-term effects of air pollution on the eye, such as irritation of the ocular surface and its accompanying symptoms and complaints, chronic exposure to air pollution has been associated with long-lasting ocular conditions such as dry eye disease and cataract. Although air pollution could induce myopia through systemic inflammation and oxidative stress, to date no studies have reported on the potential effect of air pollution on the development of myopia.” [9]

In this case, data was collected over a three-year period from 2012 to 2015. Air pollution was calculated by monitoring exposure to NO2 and black carbon particles at school, and by the predictive modelling of exposure to NO2 and PM particles (PM2.5) at home. As a result of their analysis, the researchers conclude that exposure to traffic-related air pollution increases the risk of developing myopia, as indicated by the number of children using spectacles.

Air pollution affects cognitive development

More results from the BREATHE project were published in March 2015. This investigation set out to assess whether exposure to traffic-related air pollution has an impact on children’s cognitive development. [10] As in the previous investigation, around 2,700 schoolchildren aged 7 to 10 years from 39 schools in Barcelona participated. The schools were located in both high and low polluted areas, as measured by traffic-related NO2 concentrations. The children were assessed using computerized tests every three months over four week-long visits in a 12-month period from January 2012 to March 2013. During each visit, air pollution was monitored for levels of NO2, elemental carbon and ultra-fine particles with a dimension of 10–700 nm (i.e. 10 to 700 nanometres), both outside and inside the classroom. Analysis showed that those schools that were closest to major roads had the highest concentrations of pollutants in their classrooms. The children’s cognitive development was assessed through their performance in the tests and an analysis of the long-term changes in working memory and attentiveness. Statistical analyses of the data indicated that children from highly polluted schools had a smaller increase in cognitive development over time compared to children from lowly polluted schools. Children with attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder were even more vulnerable to pollution levels. The researchers conclude: “Importantly, these findings do not prove that traffic-related air pollution causes impairment of cognitive development. Rather, they suggest that the developing brain may be vulnerable to traffic-related air pollution well into middle childhood, a conclusion that has implications for the design of air pollution regulations and for the location of new schools.”

Evidence of slower brain growth in schoolchildren

Further news of these findings was reported in Horizon: the EU Research and Innovation Magazine in July this year. [11] The report mentions some findings that were not reported in the 2015 publication. Anthony King reports the finding that even one high-pollution day before a test could effect a child’s performance. Additionally, he says that the researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine 350 children, which showed that “high pollution was linked to slower growth in the front of the brain, in an area believed to be important in decision-making, social behaviour and complex thinking.” Professor Jordi Sunyer is a senior researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health and a lead scientist on the BREATHE project. He says that the harmful effects detected in the research are due to ultra-fine PM particles, mainly emitted by diesel vehicles. Ultra-fine PM particles refers to particulate matter that has an aerodynamic diameter smaller than 0.1 micrometres (< 0.1µg/m3 or < 100 nm); these are far smaller than the fine PM particles (PM2.5) which have an aerodynamic diameter smaller than 2.5µg/m3. These ultra-fine particles are tiny particles of carbon that are breathed into the lungs, cross into the bloodstream and travel to the brain, he said: they "stimulate immune cells and produce an inflammatory effect at various levels of the brain." On the implications of the research for the building of new schools, he said: "If you move traffic 50 metres from a school, ultra-fine particle amounts drop by more than half. At 200 metres, you get 10 times less." As well as reducing the number of diesel vehicles in Europe, Professor Sunyer recommends that local authorities take short-term measures to alleviate the problem by creating barriers between air pollution and citizens, including natural barriers such as trees, hedges and 'green walls'.

Links with diabetes

Air pollution may also contribute to the development of diabetes, affecting children in particular. Research published by the American Diabetes Association in 2016 suggests a link between long-term exposure to air pollution (PM10 and NO2) and insulin resistance in the general population, “mainly attributable to pre-diabetic individuals” (i.e. individuals whose blood sugar is abnormally high, a condition that increases the risk of contracting diabetes and cardiovascular disease). [12] The American Diabetes Association has also published evidence which suggests that exposure to elevated concentrations of NO2 and PM2.5 may contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes “through direct effects on insulin sensitivity and β-cell function”. This latter research, published in January this year, studied children aged 8 to 15 years who were classed as overweight or obese and were followed over a three-year period. [13]

Effects on the unborn child?

Research has also investigated the effects of air pollution exposure on children at the foetal stage. A longitudinal study was published two years ago by the American Medical Association in its journal JAMA Psychiatry. [14] The participants included a sample of 40 urban youth who were followed up prospectively from the foetal stage up to the ages of 7 to 9 years. The research in this case focused on the effect of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, described as ubiquitous and toxic environmental pollutants. The researchers detected a “close-response relationship” between exposure to these pollutants and reductions in the white matter of the brain in later childhood. These reductions “were confined almost exclusively to the left hemisphere of the brain and involved almost its entire surface.” The reduced white matter in the left hemisphere was closely associated with a slower speed in processing information during intelligence tests and more severe behavioural problems, including symptoms of attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder. The authors of the study also suggest that postnatal exposure contributes to additional disturbances in the development of white matter in later childhood, a finding that shares similarities with the slower brain growth detected in the BREATHE project, as mentioned above.

Links with cardiovascular disease, strokes and heart failure

There is a growing body of research that has demonstrated a link between particulate air pollution and the development of cardiovascular disease, such as furring of the arteries. [15] For those people already suffering from heart disease, air pollution can worsen their condition. A study published in the British Medical Journal shows that short-term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of a stroke, with a risk of hospitalisation or death from heart failure in the following week, [16] while a study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation shows that short-term exposure to high levels of air pollution can trigger a heart attack (“myocardial infarction”). [17] The British Heart Foundation (BHF) says air pollution “is a particular problem for the 570,000 people in the UK living with heart failure.” [18] At the British Heart Foundation’s Centre for Cardiovascular Science based at the University of Edinburgh, a team of researchers have analysed data from twelve countries covering more than four million people living with heart failure “and found they had an increased risk of hospitalisation and death where pollution levels were high.” Lead researcher Professor David Newby said: “People with heart failure are a vulnerable group and, when the air quality falls, more of them are admitted to hospital.”

Research at the BHF Centre for Cardiovascular Science

Recent research at the Centre for Cardiovascular Science has been particularly concerned about “nanosized particulate matter in air pollution, such as that derived from vehicle exhaust.” [19] This nanosized particulate matter refers to the ultra-fine particles of air pollution that were featured in the research findings described above. The teams working at the Centre for Cardiovascular Science have published research demonstrating “that acute exposure to diesel exhaust causes vascular dysfunction, thrombosis, and myocardial ischaemia in healthy individuals and in patients with coronary heart disease” (‘myocardial ischaemia’ is a blockage or a hardening of the coronary arteries, resulting in a reduction of the blood flow to the heart muscle). [20] However, while research has demonstrated the links between exposure to particulate air pollution and the development of numerous vascular ailments, the mechanisms through which inhalation could trigger acute cardiovascular events, such as strokes and heart attacks, are only beginning to be understood, and there is a major area of uncertainty surrounding the question of how precisely inhaled particles influence the progression of systemic cardiovascular disease, particularly whether inhaled particles are transported from the lungs, enter the bloodstream and make a direct contribution to cardiovascular disorders.

This was the question that researchers set out to answer in a study that was published by the American Chemical Society in April this year and was carried out by scientists from the UK and the Netherlands. The scientists were based at the BHF Centre for Cardiovascular Science, the Medical Research Council Centre for Inflammation Research (also based at the University of Edinburgh), the University of Edinburgh School of Chemistry, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (Netherlands), and Utrecht University and VU University (both in the Netherlands). This particular research was motivated by the growth in engineered nanomaterials and concerns over the potential for human exposure. In their introduction, the scientists say that engineered nanoparticles have “potential similarities to environmental nanoparticles that are associated with significant cardiorespiratory morbidity and mortality.” These environmental nanoparticles are the ultra-fine particles whose dimension is far smaller than the so-called fine particles (PM2.5), as mentioned above. Consequently, the research has implications for our understanding of how precisely air pollution may contribute to the development and progression of cardiovascular disease.

The fate of ultra-fine particles

To find an answer to this question, the researchers recruited 14 volunteers who were exposed to biologically inert, and hence harmless, gold nanoparticles of varying sizes. The volunteers were all male, non-smokers, and aged 18 to 35. Prior to exposure, none of the volunteers had gold detectable in the bloodstream, but gold was detectable in the bloodstream as early as 15mins after exposure in some subjects and was present in the majority at 24 hours. Further research was carried out using 12 volunteers who were suffering from a “cerebrovascular accident,” the medical term for a stroke, and were waiting to undergo surgery. As a result of this research, the scientists were able to conclude that inhaled nanoparticles are transported from the lung into the bloodstream, “where they accumulate at sites of vascular inflammation” (‘vascular inflammation’ is a condition characterised by the build-up of a fatty plaque on the walls of the arteries). The smaller particles were more likely to accumulate, indicating that the ultra-fine particles of air pollution, such as the tiny carbon particles emitted by diesel vehicles, are the most harmful to human health.

News of these findings was reported in the New Scientist in April this year by Michael Le Page, who says that the gold nanoparticles could still be found in blood and urine samples three months after inhalation. [21] Mark Miller, who led the research at the Centre, says that the team was “really surprised that levels were so high three months afterwards.” He described the health implications of the research as follows. When nanoparticles get into the body, he said, they accumulate in the fatty plaques that can grow inside arteries, causing heart attacks and strokes, and the reactive compounds found in air pollution could have all sorts of harmful effects, from impairing the contraction of blood vessels to promoting clotting. The New Scientist also quotes a statement from Frank Kelly, Professor of Environmental Health at King’s College London, who said the study goes a long way towards explaining how air pollution causes vascular injury and disease. “If these findings with gold particles reflect the movement of exhaust-generated carbon particles, then the increased production of very small particles by modern engines is a cause for further concern,” he said.

“Efforts to regulate air pollution are focusing on the wrong particles”

The research also has significant implications for the monitoring of air pollution. The technological devices that are widely used to measure air pollution at the roadside are able to measure the total mass of PM particles in a cubic metre of air, but they are unable to measure the number of such particles. And legal limits for PM emissions, as set by the EU, are based on these measures of total mass. However, thousands of ultra-fine particles can weigh much less in total than a small number of larger-sized particles, and it is the ultra-fine particles that are the most dangerous. This has led Professor David Newby to comment that current efforts to regulate air pollution are focusing on the wrong particles. “We are potentially looking in the wrong place,” he said. And Mark Miller says: “Ideally, we would measure numbers, but the technology is not there.” [22] A further problem is that, while EU legislation sets limits for particulate matter smaller than 2.5µg/m3 (PM2.5), there is no separate regulation for these far smaller ultra-fine particles.

Professor Newby also thinks that the number of ultra-fine particles has risen in the past decade over Europe as a result of diesel emissions, which means that the risk to human health has increased. This is in contrast to those who claim that air pollution has improved over the last few decades because the mass of PM2.5 particles has fallen in most of Europe, as measured by the widely used technology. According to a recent EU assessment of its Ambient Air Quality Directive, PM2.5 levels exceeded the legal limit in just six member states in 2014: the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, France, Hungary and Italy. [23] And, although the UK has broken the legal limit for NO2 emissions over the last seven years, the EU assessment records that in 2013 the UK was within the legal limit for both PM10 and PM2.5 particles. The EU legal limits that are intended to regulate air pollution mean therefore that the UK Government is under less pressure to tackle the problem of ultra-fine particles. [24]

Legal limits are not safety limits

There is also a further problem here in the disparity between the EU’s definition of legal limits and what the World Health Organization (WHO) regards as safety limits. The WHO guideline values for particulate matter are 20μg/m3 for PM10 and 10μg/m3 for PM2.5, whereas the EU legal limits are 40μg/m3 for PM10 and 25μg/m3 for PM2.5, taken as the average over a twelve-month period. In short, the WHO sets higher standards for safety limits. The WHO published a database in May last year of air pollution statistics from urban areas across the globe. These figures show that the UK breached what the WHO describes as safety limits for PM10 and PM2.5 particles in towns and cities across the UK. Safety limits for PM10 were breached in ten towns and cities. These were: London, Glasgow, Leeds, Nottingham, Southampton, Oxford, Scunthorpe, Port Talbot, Eastbourne, and Stanford-Le-Hope in Essex. Safety limits for PM2.5 were breached in 39 towns and cities. These include the ten already mentioned and Middlesbrough, Carlisle, York, Hull, Manchester, Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent, Birmingham, Bristol, Newport, Cardiff, Swansea, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Brighton, Southend, and Norwich. If we add to this the problem of measuring and regulating the currently unregulated ultra-fine particles, which scientists now regard as the most harmful to human health, it becomes obvious that current regulatory mechanisms are inadequate to tackle the problem of air pollution. [25]

Pathways to the brain

Returning to recent research, we mentioned above that scientists working on the BREATHE project have said that ultra-fine particles are breathed into the lungs, cross into the bloodstream and travel to the brain, with an MRI scan showing an association between a high level of air pollution and a slower development of a child’s brain. [26] However, other researchers have found that airborne pollutants can enter the brain through an alternative pathway: namely, directly through the nose and the olfactory nerve. Further, the finding that PM particles can enter the brain has led some to suggest there may be a link between air pollution and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

A significant discovery which made national news was published in September last year in the journal PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. [27] The research was carried out by scientists from the UK, Mexico, and the USA, and led by Professor Barbara Maher at the University of Lancaster. The scientists analysed samples of brain tissue from 37 people. Some of the samples came from 29 people who had lived and died in Mexico City and whose ages ranged from 3 to 85. The rest of the samples came from 8 people from Manchester whose ages ranged from 62 to 92 and included some who had suffered from severe to moderate forms of Alzheimer’s disease. The scientists found tiny particles of iron oxide, also known as magnetite, in all of the 37 samples. Small quantities of magnetite can occur naturally in the brain, and in the PNAS paper the authors point out that “biologically formed nanoparticles of the strongly magnetic mineral, magnetite, were first detected in the human brain over twenty years ago.” However, in their research the scientists “used magnetic analyses and electron microscopy to identify the abundant presence in the human brain of magnetite nanoparticles that are consistent with high-temperature formation, suggesting, therefore, an external, not internal, source.” Further, these magnetite nanoparticles matched precisely “the high-temperature magnetite nanospheres, formed by combustion and/or friction-derived heating, which are prolific in urban, airborne particulate matter.”

The authors say that, because many of the airborne magnetite pollution particles are so small, they can enter the brain directly through the olfactory nerves (i.e. the cranial nerves supplying the smell receptors to the nose) and by crossing the damaged olfactory unit. The importance of this discovery is that nano-scale magnetite can respond to external magnetic fields and is toxic to the brain. Nano-scale magnetite is implicated in oxidative cell damage which has a causal link to neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease; hence, the authors argue, “exposure to such airborne PM-derived magnetite nanoparticles might need to be examined as a possible hazard to human health.”

Millions of nanoparticles in a single gram of brain tissue

Speaking to BBC News, lead researcher Professor Barbara Maher said she had previously identified magnetite particles in air samples gathered next to a busy road in Lancaster and outside a power station, and she suspected that similar particles might be found in the brain samples. [28] Her suspicions were confirmed by the results which she described as shocking, as a magnetic extraction showed there were a million of these particles in a single gram of brain tissue. It was the shape of the nanoparticles detected in the microscopy that gave a clue as to their origins. Naturally occurring particles of magnetite have a jagged shape, but the majority of the millions of particles found in the tissue samples were smooth and rounded, and displayed features that Professor Maher said could only be created in the high temperatures of a vehicle engine or braking system. “They are spherical shapes and they have little crystallites around their surfaces, and they occur with other metals like platinum which comes from catalytic converters,” she said. These particles were 100 times more numerous than the naturally occurring particles. Professor Maher said it was the first time such particles had been found in the human brain and the discovery opened up a new area of investigation: namely, the question of whether “these magnetite particles are causing or accelerating neurodegenerative disease.”

Links with neurodegenerative disease?

David Allsop is a Professor of Neuroscience at Lancaster University who specialises in neurological diseases and is a co-author of the PNAS paper. Speaking to BBC News, he said that pollution particles could be an important risk factor for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. “There is no absolutely proven link at the moment but there are lots of suggestive observations,” he said. “Other people have found these pollution particles in the middle of the plaques that accumulate in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease so they could well be a contributor to plaque formation. These particles are made out of iron and iron is very reactive so it’s almost certainly going to do some damage to the brain. It’s involved in producing very reactive molecules called reaction oxygen species which produce oxidative damage and that’s very well defined. We already know oxidative damage contributes to brain damage in Alzheimer’s patients so if you’ve got iron in the brain it’s very likely to do some damage. It can’t be benign.” [29]

However, Dr Clare Walton, Research Communications Manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, said there was no strong evidence that magnetite causes Alzheimer’s disease or makes it worse. “This study offers convincing evidence that magnetite from air pollution can get into the brain,” she said, “but it doesn’t tell us what effect this has on brain health or conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. The causes of dementia are complex and so far there hasn’t been enough research to say whether living in cities and polluted areas raises the risk of dementia. Further work in this area is important, but until we have more information people should not be unduly worried.” [30]

The search for evidence

In the last twelve months there have been a number of studies that have investigated possible links between air pollution and neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease . A recent study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives last month. [31] The aim of the research was to examine whether exposure to PM air pollution is related to the risk of contracting Parkinson’s disease. In their introduction, the authors state: “Toxins in air pollution have been shown to promote inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which are thought to contribute to Parkinson’s disease.” The researchers, based at a number of institutions in the USA, followed over 50,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, a large cohort of men in the USA which included 550 cases of Parkinson’s disease. They estimated the cumulative average exposure to various sizes of PM up to two years before the onset of Parkinson’s by linking each participant’s place of residence throughout the study with location-specific PM models. Statistical analysis of the results did not show any significant associations between PM exposure and the risk of contracting the disease. They conclude: “In this study we found no evidence that exposure to air pollution is a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease in men.”

Other researchers however have found associations between air pollution exposure and the development of Parkinson’s disease. A review of the available literature on the subject was published in the journal Reviews on Environmental Health in July this year. [32] The review focused on a broad range of studies that investigated possible links between a number of pollutants (including PM particles of various sizes, NO2, and airborne metals) and the development of Parkinson’s disease. The author states: “Air pollution exposure is linked to numerous adverse effects on human health, including brain inflammation and oxidative stress, processes that are believed to contribute to the development and progression of Parkinson’s Disease.” The review produced mixed results: some showed a strong association; some showed a moderate association, and some showed none at all. The author found that the studies that looked at air pollution exposure over a longer time span were more likely to find a positive association. The types of pollutants that were investigated in the studies include PM particles (PM2.5 and PM10), traffic-related NO2 emissions, airborne metals, and second-hand smoking.

The problem of size

In the main, research on the impact of air pollution on human health has tended to focus on the impact of NO2 and PM pollution and, because existing data is more readily available, and because new data can be gathered more easily, on PM2.5 and PM10 particles in particular. There has been far less research on the impact of the smaller ultra-fine particles that have featured in the BREATHE project and the PNAS paper. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre, and the nanoparticles (or ‘nanospheres’) in the PNAS study are less than 200 nanometres in diameter. Writing for BBC News, David Shukman draws a comparison with a human hair, which is at least 50,000 nanometres thick. As the size of the particles decreases, the number of pathways increases, together with the potential to do harm. “While large particles of pollution such as soot can be trapped inside the nose,” he says, “smaller types can enter the lungs and even smaller ones can cross into the bloodstream. But nanoscale particles of magnetite are believed to be small enough to pass from the nose into the olfactory bulb and then via the nervous system into the frontal cortex of the brain.” [33] Airborne particles of a smaller size, such as the ultra-fine particles of carbon emitted by diesel vehicles, would find it just as easy to follow this pathway to the brain. In the search for links between air pollution and neurodegenerative disease, it may be the case therefore, as Professor David Newby suggested above, that researchers have been focusing on the wrong particles.

PM particles classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says: “Generally, if you are young and in a good state of health, moderate air pollution levels are unlikely to have any serious short-term effects.” However, it continues, elevated levels or long-term exposure to air pollution can affect the respiratory system and “can also lead to more serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer.” [34] The link with cancer was given an authoritative status in October 2013 when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization, issued a press release in which it announced that it had classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). [35] This followed a press release issued in June 2012, in which IARC declared diesel engine exhaust to be carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), “based on sufficient evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer.” [36] The press release on outdoor air pollution, issued in 2013, said:

“After thoroughly reviewing the latest available scientific literature, the world’s leading experts convened by the IARC Monographs Programme concluded that there is sufficient evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer (Group 1). They also noted a positive association with an increased risk of bladder cancer. Particulate matter, a major component of outdoor air pollution, was evaluated separately and was also classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). The IARC evaluation showed an increasing risk of lung cancer with increasing levels of exposure to particulate matter and air pollution. Although the composition of air pollution and levels of exposure can vary dramatically between locations, the conclusions of the Working Group apply to all regions of the world.” [37]

What do we know?

The World Health Organization estimated in 2014 that, globally, around 7m premature deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution, while an assessment published in the journal Nature in September 2015 estimates that air pollution contributes to more than 3m premature deaths a year worldwide, “predominantly in Asia.” [38] As regards the UK, a report published in 2016 by the Royal College of Physicians says that each year in the UK, “around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution.” [39] And as regards specific outcomes, the World Health Organization has said that evidence published in 2013 “strengthened the causal link between fine particles (PM2.5) and cardiovascular and respiratory ill health. It also showed that long-term exposure to PM2.5 can trigger a range of problems, such as atherosclerosis, adverse birth outcomes and childhood respiratory diseases, and suggested possible links with neurological development, cognitive function and diabetes.” [40]

However, evidence of an association between two phenomena does not mean that one is a cause of the other. Research has shown that traffic-related air pollution can trigger asthma attacks in those suffering from severe forms of asthma, but there is no definitive proof that air pollution is one of the causes of asthma. In the case of diabetes, there is evidence that air pollution increases the risk of contracting the disease in certain individuals, but again there is no scientific evidence of causation. In the case of cardiovascular problems and heart disease, research has shown that air pollution can trigger a stroke and is a significant contributory factor in the development of heart disease, with a growing body of evidence that acute exposure to diesel exhaust does indeed cause a number of cardiovascular problems (see the research at the BHF Centre for Cardiovascular Science, above). But in the case of dementia and other neurological illnesses, the evidence for an association with air pollution is contradictory. What we do know however is that PM particles of different sizes can enter the lungs, the bloodstream and the brain, and have a significant impact on young adults; we don’t know whether this increases the risk of contracting a neurodegenerative disease in later life. The links with respiratory illnesses, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease are more certain. And research has shown that air pollution has a significant impact on children, with consequences for their mental capacity, their physical and cognitive development, and their physical health.

The Call for Action

Four years ago, following the announcement that IARC had classified outdoor air pollution and PM particles as carcinogenic to humans, the World Health Organization said the evidence “reveals the urgent need to take action at the local, regional and global levels to reduce the health threat posed by outdoor air pollution.” [41] It repeated an earlier call to all countries “to develop policies and implement measures to improve air quality to meet WHO guidelines” and “to implement the European Union (EU) legislation on air quality in full, with stricter values for air pollution limits.” The UK Government’s response, as discussed in last month’s article, has been inadequate to say the least, and its actions have been motivated less by the need to take urgent action to reduce a health threat and more by economic concerns, in particular by the need to avoid fines from the EU. Whilst the UK Government’s actions have been ineffective, the World Health Organization said in 2016 that there were signs of hope. The good news was that “awareness is rising and more cities are monitoring their air quality,” according to the WHO’s Director of Public Health, Dr Maria Neira. [42] The research discussed in this article suggests that more needs to be done as regard monitoring, particularly with the methods and the technology used to measure ultra-fine particles, now viewed as the most dangerous for human health. More investment in the research and technology in this area would obviously help. That, together with rectifying the lack of regulation in this area, and resolving the disparity between EU legal limits and WHO safety limits, might create some extra signs of hope.

Acknowledgement

Photograph: London Borough of Camden Air Monitoring Station © Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Notes

[1] The UK Government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says nitrogen dioxide (NO2) irritates the airways of the lungs, increasing the symptoms of those suffering from lung diseases, while fine particles (PM) can be carried deep into the lungs where they can cause inflammation and a worsening of heart and lung diseases. “People with lung or heart conditions may be more susceptible to the effects of air pollution,” it says. See ‘Effects of air pollution’ at https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/air-pollution/effects. As well as causing breathing difficulties, high levels of NO2 can trigger asthma attacks for those who suffer from a severe form of the condition. See the Asthma UK website at https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/triggers/pollution/.
[2] Wood, H., et al. (2015) Effects of Air Pollution and the Introduction of the London Low Emission Zone on the Prevalence of Respiratory and Allergic Symptoms in Schoolchildren in East London: A Sequential Cross-Sectional Study. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0109121. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0109121. Retrieved from: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0109121.
[3] Quoted by Laura Donnelly in ‘Air pollution stunting children’s lungs, study finds’, The Telegraph, 25/10/2015. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/laura-donnelly/11953613/Air-pollution-stunting-childrens-lungs-study-finds.html.
[4] Ibid: see [2].
[5] Ibid: see [3].
[6] Adam Vaughan and Esther Addley, ‘Boris Johnson “held back” negative findings of air pollution report’, The Guardian, 17/05/2016. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/17/boris-johnson-held-back-negative-findings-of-air-pollution-report. The report’s author Katie King is Director of the environmental consultancy Aether, based in Oxford.
[7] See the BREATHE Project website at http://www.creal.cat/projectebreathe/.
[8] Dadvand, P., et al. (2017) Traffic-related air pollution and spectacles use in schoolchildren. PLoS ONE 12(4): e0167046. https://doi.org/10.1371 /journal.pone.0167046. Retrieved from: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0167046.
[9] Ibid: see [8].
[10] Sunyer, J., et al. (2015) Association between Traffic-Related Air Pollution in Schools and Cognitive Development in Primary School Children: A Prospective Cohort Study. PLoS Med 12(3): e1001792. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001792. Retrieved from: http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1001792.
[11] Anthony King, ‘Traffic pollution prevents children’s brains from reaching their full potential’, Horizon, 17/07/2017. Retrieved from: https://phys.org/news/2017-07-traffic-pollution-children-brains-full.html.
[12] Wolf, K., et al. (2016) Association Between Long-Term Exposure to Air Pollution and Biomarkers Related to Insulin Resistance, Subclinical Inflammation and Adipokines. Diabetes, 65(8): db151567. https://doi.org/10.2337/db15-1567. Retrieved from: http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2016/08/16/db15-1567.
[13] Alderete, T., et al. (2017). Longitudinal Associations Between Ambient Air Pollution with Insulin Sensitivity, β-Cell Function, and Adiposity in Los Angeles Latino Children. Diabetes, 66(1): db161416. https://doi.org/10.2337/db16-1416. Retrieved from: http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2017/01/27/db16-1416.long.
[14] Peterson, B., et al. (2015). Effects of Prenatal Exposure to Air Pollutants (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) on the Development of Brain White Matter, Cognition, and Behavior in Later Childhood. JAMA Psychiatry, 72(6), 531−540. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.57. Retrieved from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2205842.
[15] Brook, R., et al. (2010). Particulate matter air pollution and cardiovascular disease: An update to the scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 121, 2331−2378. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIR.0b013e3181dbece1. Retrieved from: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/121/21/2331.
[16] Shah, A., et al. (2015). Short term exposure to air pollution and stroke: systematic review and metaanalysis. British Medical Journal, 350: h1295. Retrieved from: http://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h1295.
[17] Peters, A., et al. (2001). Increased particulate air pollution and the triggering of myocardial infarction. Circulation, 103, 2810−2815. https://doi.org/10.1161/01.CIR.103.23.2810. Retrieved from: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/103/23/2810.
[18] ‘Research that shows how air pollution can affect our hearts’, British Heart Foundation. Retrieved from the BHF website at:
https://www.bhf.org.uk/heart-matters-magazine/research/air-pollution.
[19] Miller, M. et al. (2017). Inhaled Nanoparticles Accumulate at Sites of Vascular Disease. ACS Nano, 11(5), 4542–4552. https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.6b08551. Retrieved from: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acsnano.6b08551.
[20] Ibid: see [19]. The relevant research was published in the European Heart Journal and Circulation as follows:
(a) Lucking, A., et al. (2008). Diesel exhaust inhalation increases thrombus formation in man. European Heart Journal, 29, 3043−3051.
(b) Mills, N., et al. (2005). Diesel exhaust inhalation causes vascular dysfunction and impaired endogenous fibrinolysis. Circulation, 112, 3930−3936.
[21] Michael Le Page, ‘Pollution nanoparticles may enter your blood and cause disease’, New Scientist, 26/04/2017. Retrieved from: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2128923-pollution-nanoparticles-may-enter-your-blood-and-cause-disease/.
[22] Ibid: see [21].
[23] Implementation of the Air Quality Directive. A study for the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. Nagl, C., Schneider, J., and Thielen, P. April 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/578986/IPOL_STU(2016)578986_EN.pdf.
[24] In stark contrast to the EU’s assessment, the authors of the study on London’s Low Emission Zone, published in 2015, state: “Levels of traffic-related air pollution in London are among the worst in Europe, with European Union (EU) limit values for particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter of < 10μm (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) regularly exceeded in many areas of the city" (ibid: see [2]). The Environmental Research Group at King's College London provides real-time data on London's air pollution levels via the London Air Quality Network. The network consist of a number of monitoring stations spanning London and the South-East, funded by local authorities and other bodies, and complemented by modelling techniques that can 'fill in the gaps' to provide the missing data between the stations. For further info, see http://www.londonair.org.uk/LondonAir/General/about.aspx.
[25] The World Health Organization database, including notes on measurements and safety limits, is available as a spreadsheet from the WHO website at: http://www.who.int/phe/health_topics/outdoorair/databases/cities/en/. The full list of the 39 towns and cities in breach of the WHO’s safety limits for PM2.5 in 2016 is: Armagh, Belfast, Londonderry, Prestonpans, Middlesbrough, Carlisle, York, Hull, Manchester, Salford, Warrington, Wigan, Liverpool, Birkenhead, Stoke-on-Trent, Birmingham, Leamington Spa, Bristol, Chepstow, Newport, Cardiff, Swansea, Plymouth, Saltash, Portsmouth, Brighton, Southend, Thurrock, and Norwich. For a summary of the WHO’s findings and reactions to the figures, see: Ian Johnston, ‘Air pollution in UK “wreaking havoc on human health,” WHO warns’, The Independent, 12/05/2016. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/dozens-of-british-cities-are-breaching-air-pollution-limits-in-public-health-crisis-a7025401.html. The WHO database was updated in April 2017, with more towns and cities added to the list. For the EU legal limits, see: ‘Air Quality Standards’, European Commission, last updated 22/09/2017. Accessed from: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/quality/standards.htm.
[26] Ibid; see [11].
[27] Maher, B., et al. (2016). Magnetite pollution nanoparticles in the human brain. PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 113(39), 10797−10801, 27/09/2016. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1605941113. Retrieved from: http://www.pnas.org/content/113/39/10797.
[28] David Shukman, ‘Pollution particles “get into brain”‘, BBC News, 05/09/2016. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-37276219.
[29] Ibid: see [28].
[30] Ibid: see [28].
[31] Palacios, N., et al. (2017). Air Pollution and Risk of Parkinson’s Disease in a Large Prospective Study of Men. Environmental Health Perspectives, 125(8): 087011, 18/08/2017. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP259. Retrieved from: https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/ehp259/.
[32] Palacios, N. (2017). Air pollution and Parkinson’s disease – evidence and future directions. Reviews on Environmental Health, 21/07/2017. https://doi.org/10.1515/reveh-2017-0009. Retrieved from: https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/reveh.ahead-of-print/reveh-2017-0009/reveh-2017-0009.xml.
[33] Ibid: see [28]. In June this year, the journal Current Environmental Health Reports published a review of the literature on the ways in which air pollutants can find a pathway to the brain. The authors state: “Accumulating research indicates that ambient outdoor air pollution impacts the brain and may affect neurodegenerative diseases, yet the potential underlying mechanisms are poorly understood.” They conclude that, to exert effects on the central nervous system, “multiple direct and indirect pathways in response to air pollution exposure likely interact in concert.” See: Jayaraj, R., et al. (2017). Outdoor Ambient Air Pollution and Neurodegenerative Diseases: the Neuroinflammation Hypothesis, Current Environmental Health Reports, 4(2), 166−179. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40572-017-0142-3. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs40572-017-0142-3.
[34] Ibid: see [1].
[35] ‘Outdoor air pollution a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths’, IARC Press Release No. 221, 17/10/2013. Retrieved from: http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/pr221_E.pdf. IARC categories (1, 2a, 2b and 3) are based on an evaluation of the evidence, Group 1 indicating “there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans”.
[36]’DIESEL ENGINE EXHAUST CARCINOGENIC’, IARC Press Release No. 213, 12/06/2012. Retrieved from: http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2012/pdfs/pr213_E.pdf.
[37] Ibid: see [35].
[38] Lelieveld, J., et al. (2015). The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale. Nature, 525, 367−371. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature15371. Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v525/n7569/full/nature15371.html. For the World Health Organization estimate, see: ‘7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution’, WHO News Release, 25/03/2014. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2014/air-pollution/en/.
[39] Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution, Royal College of Physicians, February 2016. Available as a PDF from: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution.
[40] ‘Outdoor air pollution a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths’, World Health Organization News, 17/10/2013. Retrieved from: http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/environment-and-health/air-quality/news/news/2013/10/outdoor-air-pollution-a-leading-environmental-cause-of-cancer-deaths.
[41] Ibid: see [40].
[42] Quoted by Ian Johnston in ‘Air pollution in UK “wreaking havoc on human health,” WHO warns’, The Independent, 12/05/2016. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/dozens-of-british-cities-are-breaching-air-pollution-limits-in-public-health-crisis-a7025401.html.

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Air Pollution in the UK – Seven years of illegal NO2 emissions

UK Government publishes its latest plans to tackle air pollution

But compliance with legal limits is still a distant prospect

August 21st 2017

The UK Government has published its latest plans to tackle air pollution, following a long-running legal battle over its failure to comply with EU standards for air quality. The plans were published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport on 26th July and focused on curbing roadside nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations. In a press release, the Government announced that a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy will be published next year which will outline its plans to tackle other sources of air pollution. [1] The press release highlights the Government’s intention to end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, whilst the current strategy on curbing NO2 levels places the onus on local authorities to produce action plans.

Client Earth v. UK Government: A seven-year legal battle

The UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations is the latest development in a seven-year legal battle between the UK Government and the environment law firm Client Earth, which began in 2010 as a collaborative venture with the campaign group Clean Air in London. [2] In an initial response to the latest plan, Client Earth has described it as lacking in urgency and apparently “little more than a shabby rewrite of the previous draft plans.” [3] Anna Heslop, one of the firm’s air quality lawyers, said: “Successive governments have failed to protect us from illegal air quality. We’ve had to return repeatedly to court to challenge the Government on its weak and incoherent air quality policies and yet, seven years on, we are still having to fight to protect people’s health.” [4]

Should the lawyers take further court action, it will be the eighth time that Client Earth has taken the UK Government to court over its plans to curb NO2 emissions. In summary, the legal saga is as follows:

• 2011: High Court
• 2012: Court of Appeal
• 2013: UK Supreme Court
• 2014: European Court of Justice
• 2015: UK Supreme Court
• 2016: High Court
• 2017: High Court

What follows is the background to the latest plans. This legal saga can best be summarised as a history of missed deadlines, deliberate procrastination, and persistence on the part of the UK Government in its refusal to comply with EU law. Its air quality plans have repeatedly been deemed unlawful by the courts, and the Treasury has been consistent in having the final say, placing economic and political considerations above public health.

January 2010: UK misses deadline for legal limits of NO2 emissions

The legal battle began in 2010 as a response to the UK’s failure to meet the requirements of the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive which came into force in 2008. The 2008/50/EU Directive forms part of a body of legislation which sets out health-based standards and targets for a number of pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead, benzene, and fine particles known as particulate matter. Under EU law “a limit value is legally binding from the date it enters into force subject to any exceedances permitted by the legislation.” [5] The limit value for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which came into force on January 1st 2010, is 40µg/m3 (40 micrograms per cubic metre), taken as the average measure over a twelve-month period. A recent report on the implementation of the Directive says that NO2 levels at the most polluted traffic site in London (Marylebone Road) were well above 100μg/m3 in the period 2003 to 2009. [6] In 2013, NO2 annual mean concentrations of 85μg/m3 were recorded. In short, the levels have been well over the legal limit of 40µg/m3, which should have been met by the start of 2010.

The impact of diesel

A recent study by the Royal College of Physicians says that every year in the UK “around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution” [7] Air pollutant emissions from road traffic are generally held to be the main source of the problem, with diesel vehicles in particular being the main source of NO2 emissions. The irony here is that in 2001 the Labour Government adopted measures to boost the sale of diesel vehicles on the grounds that this would cut carbon emissions and help to reduce the effects of climate change. Martin Goodman reports that the Government published guidance on NO2 levels in 2004, in which it claimed “the UK Air Quality Strategy aims to achieve its objectives earlier than the EU has set.” However, this optimism was based on old data which showed a 37% fall in NO2 emissions in the decade up to 2000, with the expectation of a further 25% fall by 2010. The calculations did not foresee the impact of the increased use of diesel. [8]

2011–2012: High Court judges say enforcement of legal requirement is a matter for the European Commission

The legal case first appeared before the High Court in 2011, with Client Earth launching a judicial review of the failure by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to comply with the legal limits for NO2 emissions as set out in the Directive. The judge presiding over the case found that the Government was indeed in breach of a legal requirement, but declined to rule on any remedy, saying that enforcement was a matter for the European Commission. In May 2012, Client Earth appealed to the Court of Appeal, but the Court upheld the decision of the High Court judge. [9]

2013: UK Supreme Court seeks advice from European Court of Justice

In 2013, however, Client Earth submitted an appeal to the newly formed Supreme Court, and the court found in Client Earth’s favour. The Court ruled that the UK Government was in breach of a legal duty to comply with NO2 limits in 16 cities and regions, including Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, as well as London. As for what action should be taken, the Court then sought advice from the European Court of Justice regarding the provisions of the Air Quality Directive and the role of national courts in providing appropriate remedies.

2014: European Court of Justice considers “the longest-running infringement of EU law in history”

The European Court of Justice considered a body of evidence in compiling its advice, including the available data on NO2 levels. Martin Goodman says scientists from King’s College London set up a monitoring station in Oxford Street which recorded an average level of 135μg/m3 in 2014, whilst a daytime reading peaked at 463μg/m3. As for the Government’s response: “Lawyers from the European Commission told the European judges that they were considering perhaps the longest-running infringement of EU law in history.” [10]

UK Government hopes to reach compliance by 2025… or 2030…

The provisions of the Air Quality Directive say that member states can apply for an extension of up to five years to meet limiting values in a specific zone, subject to an assessment by the Commission. [11] However, the Government had already missed its 2010 deadline and said to the EU that it was unable to meet the next deadline of January 1st 2015. It was hoping to reach compliance by 2025, but then admitted that the target for NO2 levels in London, Leeds and Birmingham would not be met until 2030. [12] The European Court of Justice delivered its ruling in November 2014. The judgement said that the UK was legally obliged to mitigate air pollution and was “wholly adrift of all procedures to fit such compliance to the given deadlines. Furthermore, it must produce a plan to keep the period in which NO2 pollution was breaking legal limits ‘as short as possible.'”

April 2015: UK Supreme Court orders Government to take urgent action on air pollution

The decision was sent back to the UK Supreme Court, which delivered its verdict in April 2015: “The Supreme Court unanimously orders that the Government must submit new air quality plans to the European Commission no later than 31st December 2015.” [13] The Supreme Court also demanded urgent action on the part of the Government with regard to NO2 levels, without setting a deadline for compliance. However, the parties were granted permission to return to the High Court for clarification of the order, with particular regard to the terms ‘urgent’ and ‘as soon as possible’ and how they were to be understood. A press release from Client Earth said: “The Supreme Court ruling means the Government must start work on a comprehensive plan to meet pollution limits as soon as possible. Among the measures that that it must consider are low emission zones, congestion charging, and other economic incentives. Client Earth is calling for action to clean up the worst polluting diesel vehicles, including through a national network of low emission zones.” [14]

December 2015: the UK Government continues to defy EU law on NO2 limits

Defra published a draft plan in September 2015. In response, Client Earth released a series of press statements which criticised the Government for a lack of joined-up thinking, saying that the Department for Transport and DECC (the now defunct Department for Energy and Climate Change) had failed to make any assessment of the impact on air quality when making major policy decisions, whilst Defra’s draft plans, published as a consultation document, did not meet the demand for immediate action:

“The Supreme Court ordered Liz Truss to come up with a plan to achieve legal levels of air quality as soon as possible. Instead, even under the Government’s own projections, many cities in the UK will still have illegal levels of diesel fumes until 2020 and beyond. In London the problem is even worse – Defra projections say the legal levels of air pollution will not be reached until 2025. The plans contain only one new national measure: ‘clean air zones’ which would restrict older vehicles entering the most polluted city centres – but leaving it up to overstretched and underfunded local authorities to implement them. We therefore don’t have any idea if or when these clean air zones will ever materialise.” [15]

Treasury reduces Defra’s plans for Clean Air Zones

Following the consultation period, the Government’s plans were finally published on 17th December 2015. The plans repeated much of what was said in the draft. So the Government had responded to the Supreme Court ruling by producing an air quality plan by the end of the year deadline, but the plan was to reach compliance with the EU’s limit values for NO2 by 2025. Client Earth said this amounted to a total defiance of the Air Quality Directive, the European Court of Justice, and the UK Supreme Court. According to Martin Goodman, government ministers had been advised by Defra’s head of air quality to implement clean air zones, which would bring forward compliance with EU NO2 limits “by directly removing the dirtiest vehicles from hotspot areas and by encouraging people to swap polluting vehicles for less polluting ones.” [16] However, the Treasury reduced Defra’s plans for 16 clean air zones outside of London to 5 (Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton), and also blocked an increase in charges for driving in city centres. [17] Client Earth responded to the plan’s publication with an announcement that the Government would face further legal action. The firm’s principal air quality lawyer, Alan Andrews, said: “The Government seems to think that the health of people in cities like Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol is less important than that of people in London. While London gets a clean air zone covering all vehicles, Birmingham gets a second class zone and Derby and Southampton third class, while other areas including Manchester and Liverpool are left out. We all have the same right to breathe clean air.” [18] The new legal challenge was launched in March 2016 when Client Earth lodged papers at the High Court, seeking a judicial review of the Government’s plans. [19]

April 2016: MPs declare UK air pollution to be a “public health emergency”

In April 2016, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Select Committee, which oversees the work of Defra, published a report on the state of air pollution in the UK and the Government’s attempts to tackle it, declaring that the situation amounted to a “public health emergency.” [20] The cross-party group of MPs called on the Government to introduce a scrappage scheme for old diesel vehicles which would target those older than ten years of age and offer drivers financial incentives to trade them in. The Efra report also says that UK ministers should argue robustly with the EU to set lower limits for nitrogen oxide emissions from new vehicles, as the EU’s ‘real world’ tests, to be implemented from 1st September 2017, would set initial emission limits that are twice as high as previous laboratory test levels and set limits into the 2020s which are 50% higher. [21] The report also reiterates Client Earth’s criticism of the lack of joined-up thinking from government departments: “Despite mounting evidence of the costly health and environmental impacts of air pollution, we see little evidence of a cohesive cross-government plan to tackle emissions.” The report says that the inter-ministerial ‘Clean Growth Group’, which is meant to be co-ordinating efforts to tackle air pollution, is seen as secretive and “does not publish information on its meetings, outcomes or action plans.”

May 2016: London Mayor Sadiq Khan joins Client Earth’s legal challenge

In May 2016, newly-elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced his intention to submit statements and evidence in Client Earth’s forthcoming legal case at the High Court. Speaking to the Guardian’s environment correspondent Damian Carrington, he said: “The government’s current air quality plan with respect to London is based on the very limited ambition of the previous mayor to tackle air pollution and isn’t enough to protect Londoners’ health.” [22] Earlier that month, the Guardian had revealed that Boris Johnson, Sadiq Khan’s predecessor, had commissioned a report on air pollution in London but the report had remained unpublished since its completion in 2013. The report showed that 433 schools in London are in areas that exceed legal limits for NO2 pollution and that 80% of those schools are in deprived areas. [23] On taking up his post as mayor, Sadiq Khan set out new plans to tackle London’s air pollution problem, which included doubling the size of the ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone,’ which Boris Johnson had planned to implement by 2020, and retrofitting 1,000 more buses with cleaner technology. Older, dirtier diesel vehicles will be charged £12.50 to enter the low emission zone. Sadiq Khan said to the Guardian: “It’s clear we need to speed up our efforts so I’m calling on government to match my new level of ambition for London and to work with me to improve our city’s dirty air and to make sure we get within legal limits much sooner – before the current target of 2025.” [24]

November 2016: Judicial Review finds Air Quality Plan is based knowingly on flawed data

Client Earth’s case was heard at the High Court in October 2016. In delivering the Court’s ruling, Mr Justice Garnham agreed with Client Earth that the Environment Secretary had failed to take measures that would bring the UK into compliance with the law “as soon as possible.” The judgement, published on 2nd November, said that the Government’s 2015 Air Quality Plan failed to comply with the Supreme Court ruling or relevant EU Directives and found that the Government had erred in law by setting compliance dates based on an over-optimistic modelling of pollution levels, using lab tests which they knew to be flawed. Instead of identifying measures that would achieve compliance as soon as possible, “it identified measures which, if very optimistic forecasts happened to be proved right and emerging data happened to be wrong, might achieve compliance. To adopt a plan based on such assumptions was to breach both the Directive and the Regulations.” [25] The judge said it was remarkable that the Government had acknowledged that its plan was built around a forecast based on figures which emerging data was undermining and that “if higher, more realistic, assumptions for emissions are made, the number of zones which will not meet the limit value in 2020 increases substantially.” [26]

Evidence suggests the Government’s timetable is motivated by the prospect of EU fines

The judge also commented on ministerial correspondence which suggested “that a principal driving factor in selecting 2020 was not the obligation to remedy the problem as soon as possible but to remedy it in time to avoid EU infraction proceedings.” [27] The correspondence said: “In developing potential measures for the plans we have used projected exceedances in 2020 as the basis for defining the worst areas. This is based on our understanding that 2020 is likely to be the earliest the EU will move to fines.” The judge said that, while there can be no objection to a member state having regard to cost when choosing between two equally effective measures, or when deciding which organ of government should pay, he rejected “any suggestion that the state can have any regard to cost in fixing the date for compliance or in determining the route by which the compliance can be achieved where one route produces results quicker than another.” [28] He continued: “In those respects the determining consideration has to be the efficacy of the measure in question and not their cost. That, it seems to me, flows inevitably from the requirements in the Article to keep the exceedance period as short as possible.”

Back to the drawing board

The ruling was welcomed by Client Earth whose air quality lawyer Alan Andrews said in a press statement: “We need a national network of clean air zones to be in place by 2018 in cities across the UK, not just in a handful of cities. The Government also needs to stop these inaccurate modelling forecasts. Future projections of compliance need to be based on what is really coming out of the exhausts of diesel cars when driving on the road, not just the results of discredited laboratory tests.” [29]

For the Government, it was a case of ‘back to the drawing board.’

UK Government is ordered to produce a draft plan by 24 April 2017…

The deadlines for the Government were delivered by Mr Justice Garnham at the High Court on 21st November. The judge, rejecting the Government’s suggested timetable of September 2017 to produce a final plan, ordered the Government to produce a draft plan by 24th April 2017 and a final one by 31st July 2017. The judge also requested that the Government publish the technical data on which it was basing its plans, and gave Client Earth permission to return to the High Court should there be any further problems with the draft plan. Responding to the ruling, Alan Andrews said that a total of 37 out of 43 zones in the UK had illegal levels of air pollution, and argued that a national network of clean air zones must be part of the Government’s plans, which meant far more than the six which were currently planned. [30]

But on 21 April 2017 the UK Government wants an extension

Following the PM's decision to call a general election on 8th June, the Government then made a last-minute attempt to delay publication of the draft plan, seeking 30th June and 15th September as the new deadlines. The application to the High Court was submitted late on Friday 21st April after the court had closed, and shortly before the original deadline of 4pm on Monday 24th April. Mr Justice Garnham ordered a hearing into the application for Thursday, 27th April. At the hearing, the Government claimed that "purdah rules" meant that they could not publish the plans until after the general election, but was forced to concede that the delay could have an impact on the implementation of measures to reduce air pollution "as soon as possible." Client Earth argued that air pollution was a matter of public health not politics. The judge agreed, but accepted that purdah rules would affect the local elections on 4th May. He ordered the Government to produce the plans by the new deadline of 9th May. The 31st July deadline remained in force. [31]

May 2017: Draft plans are “weak and incoherent”

The draft plans were finally published for consultation on 5th May, while the results of the local elections were still being counted. Client Earth’s CEO James Thornton gave an immediate response, saying the plans were weak and incoherent, and that the UK would still be faced with illegal air quality for years to come under the proposals: “We fail to see how the non-charging clean air zones, proposed by the Government, will be effective if they don’t persuade motorists to stay out of those areas. The Government seems to be passing the buck to local authorities rather than taking responsibility for this public health emergency,” he said. He also noted that the Government had failed to make any commitments to a diesel scrappage scheme. [32]

A flawed consultation

The draft plans were accompanied by a public consultation which ran from 5th May to 15th June. But on 31st May Client Earth said that the consultation did not include measures which the government’s own technical data showed were the best way to bring down air pollution as soon as possible. In particular, the evidence showed that a network of clean air zones which charged the dirtiest diesel vehicles for entering the most polluted areas of the UK would be the most effective solution, but the draft plans did not set this out as a proposal. Client Earth’s lawyers had written to Defra seeking improvements to the draft, but Defra had refused to modify the consultation. James Thornton said the consultation was flawed and that Client Earth would be seeking a ruling from the High Court on this issue. “The government’s plans and consultation do not match what its own evidence says needs to happen,” he said. “If the evidence shows that taking certain measures will be necessary to tackle the public health crisis of polluted air, then the plans and associated consultation needs to make that clear.” [33]

July 2017: Back to the High Court

A hearing at the High Court was set for Wednesday 5th July. Mr Justice Garnham ruled that the draft plan in itself was not unlawful, but suggested that the final plan could well be open to legal challenge if it did not deal with some of the concerns presented by Client Earth. [34] The judge also stated that any alternative measures to meet air quality limits would have to be equally effective or more effective than a clean air zone that charged polluting vehicles for entering.

The final plan was published on 26th July.

A “highly localised” problem, says Government

We return now to this latest plan, the UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations. In its press release, the Government’s use of statistics reduces the problem of air pollution to a relatively minor proportion of the country’s roads. It says that NO2 levels have decreased by 50% in the last 15 years, but 4% of Britain’s major roads (81 out of 1,800) are due to breach legal pollution limits for NO2, including 33 outside of London. Consequently, the Government’s press release describes NO2 pollution as a highly localised problem and places the burden on local authorities to sort this out: “Due to the highly localised nature of the problem, local knowledge will be crucial in solving pollution problems in these hotspots,” it says. [35]

Local authorities must take “robust action”

The Government says it will be providing towns and cities with £255m to implement local plans. Local authorities will be asked to produce initial plans within eight months and final plans by the end of 2018. Local councils “with the worst levels of air pollution at busy road junctions and hotspots must take robust action,” with the aim of delivering roadside NO2 compliance “in the fastest possible time.” In addition to the £255m implementation fund, the Government has also announced a new Clean Air Fund, the details of which will be announced later this year. The aim of the Clean Air Fund is “to support improvements which will reduce the need for restrictions on polluting vehicles.” Local authorities will be invited to bid for funds to carry out these improvements. The measures could include reducing congestion by changing road layouts or removing traffic lights and speed humps; upgrading bus fleets with new low emission buses or retrofitting older buses with cleaner engines; encouraging the uptake of ultra low emission vehicles; and introducing concessionary travel schemes and new park and ride services. A consultation is expected in the autumn to gather views on measures to support those affected by local plans, such as a targeted scrappage scheme for car and van drivers.

Charging polluting vehicles should be a last resort, says Government

The Government says local authorities should only consider restrictions on polluting vehicles if their action plans are insufficient to ensure legal compliance, and charging should only be considered as a last resort. In addition, “restrictions or charging on polluting vehicles should be time-limited and lifted as soon as air pollution is within legal limits and the risk of future breaches has passed.”

£2.7bn to improve air quality

The Government says it is committing £2.7bn in total to reducing vehicle emissions and improving air quality, including investments in the development and manufacture of ultra low emission vehicles, and a £100m Clean Bus Technology Fund grant scheme to fund new buses and retrofitting older buses, £40m of which was being made available immediately. A ring-fenced Air Quality Fund of £100m has been allocated to Highways England to help improve air quality on the national road network as part of the Government’s Road Investment Strategy. The fund will be available to 2021 and an article in the Independent reveals how Highways England may spend part of the money, following the publication of its air quality strategy. [36]

Highways England’s air quality strategy, published on 2nd August, says “emissions from diesel vehicles are a significant contributor to the poor air quality at the roadside” and contributes around 77% of the NO2 close to the motorway network. [37] The agency is investing in a three-year programme from 2015 to 2018 which will deliver around 50 continuous monitoring stations across the road network to provide real time air quality information. It is also exploring the possibility of using physical barriers to pollution by testing a a new polymer material with the potential to clean the air. If the tests are successful, it will consider using the material to build canopies which would cover stretches of its road network. The agency says it started trialling a physical air quality barrier in 2015 which covered a 100-metre stretch of the M62, “initially 4 metres high and raised to 6 metres in early 2016.” It then carried out a trial of a barrier incorporating an innovative polymer material with the potential to absorb NO2. The strategy document says: “We are using these trials to investigate if barriers can help contribute to improving air quality for our neighbours. The results from the monitoring of such trials will help us understand if this has been a success with the potential to implement barriers on our network. We are also investigating if we can reduce the costs to construct a canopy, which is a tunnel-like structure designed to prevent vehicle emissions reaching our neighbours, to make this a viable solution.”

The agency has also set a target of putting a charging point for ultra low emission vehicles every 20 miles on 95% of the road network. However, according to the Independent, the Automobile Association has expressed concern over the pressure a nation of electric cars would place on the National Grid, with a warning “it would have to cope with a mass switch-on after the evening rush hour,” whilst other estimates have suggested around 10 new power stations would need to be built to deal with the increased demand. [38]

The breakdown of the Government’s £2.7bn is detailed in its press release. [39]

Client Earth seeks urgent clarification on the Government’s plan

Reactions to the Government’s latest plans have been overwhelmingly critical. Client Earth’s CEO James Thornton issued a quick response, describing them as little more than a shabby rewrite of the previous draft plans, as mentioned above. “This plan is, yet again, a plan for more plans,” he said. “The Government is passing the buck to local authorities to come up with their own schemes as an alternative to clean air zones which charge the most polluting vehicles to enter our towns and cities. Yet Defra’s own evidence shows that charging clean air zones would be the swiftest way to tackle illegal levels of pollution.” [40] He highlighted the lengthy timetable for local authorities to develop their plans, the lack of attention to devolved regions, and described the 2040 diesel and petrol ban as a diversion because it failed to deal with the immediate problem of NO2 levels.

Last week, Client Earth wrote to Defra seeking urgent clarification on the plans. In particular, the letter asks for clarity on the guidance given to local authorities concerning how they will evaluate the best ways of bringing air pollution down as soon as possible, “as well as how ministers will ensure that air quality limits are met across England.” [41] Client Earth is also seeking clarity on how Defra will assess plans from the 23 local authorities and how quickly this will be done.

What about the devolved regions?

The law firm has also written to the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland, seeking clarification on their plans. Writing in theHolyrood Magazine, Liam Kirkaldy reports that there are currently 38 Pollution Zones in Scotland, which councils have said are at risk of dangerous levels of air pollution. [42] The number has risen from 35 in 2015. Client Earth has warned that “unless ministers take tougher action then Aberdeen and Edinburgh will not meet legal limits until 2020, and Glasgow will not comply until 2024.” The Scottish Government has published a proposal to trial a first Low Emission Zone in one Scottish city, and Client Earth questions how this will help reduce dangerous levels elsewhere. In a letter to the Scottish Government, the lawyers have asked for “further information on how limit values will be met in the shortest time possible in all parts of Scotland.”

Plan criticised by local authorities

The Government’s plan has been criticised by local authorities, politicians, environmental campaigners, and health experts. According to the Guardian, the leaders of Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Southampton, Leicester and Oxford city councils have written to the Environment Secretary Michael Gove, calling for urgent legislation and a comprehensive scrappage scheme to encourage people to give up diesel vehicles. [43] The plan proposes a limited version of a scrappage scheme targeted at those who most need support, such as people on lower incomes or those living in the neighbourhood of a clean air zone. The letter says that the “updated clean air plan, while indicating long-term ambition, still lacks some specific actions that would enable us to meet the legal limits and establish safer air sooner rather than later.” The article by Rowena Mason and Damian Carrington says that Sheffield Council has called the report “woefully inadequate,” with Jack Scott, cabinet member for transport, reportedly saying he was “highly sceptical that the Government’s announcement even meets their legal duties on air quality.”

Ban on diesel is “highly symbolic”

BBC News reports that Liberal Democrat and former energy secretary Ed Davey described the lack of a scrappage scheme as a “shameful betrayal” of diesel car drivers and said it showed “the utter lack of ambition” in the plan, whilst London Mayor Sadiq Khan said people in London were suffering right now because of air pollution and can’t afford to wait. [44] Sue Hayman, the shadow environment secretary, told the Guardian that here had already been “seven years of illegal air pollution under this Conservative government, who have only acted after being dragged through the courts.” [45] Speaking to Ian Johnston, environment correspondent for the Independent, Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate and energy at WWF-UK, said the proposed ban on petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 might sound good but will end up being meaningless as drivers will be switching to electric vehicles in any case. “The Government’s been failing to comply with this law for seven years,” he said, “and then is setting itself a target so far in the future that it will be delivered even if the Government did nothing.” [46] Professor Alastair Lewis, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at York University, made a similar comment, describing the ban as “highly symbolic”: “Given the rate of improvement in battery and electric vehicle technology over the last 10 years, by 2040 small combustion engines in private cars could well have disappeared without any Government intervention,” he said.

Doctors demand a “more robust response to this public health emergency”

According to the Guardian, senior doctors specialising in child health have also expressed their disappointment at the failure to take more decisive action. [47] Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said there was indisputable evidence demonstrating the tragic effects that air pollution has on the development of the lungs and hearts of children. “Having been told to go back to the drawing board so many times, that the Government’s final air quality plan still lacks sufficiently strong measures to clean our air is frankly inexcusable,” she said. Professor Jonathan Grigg, from the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, also said more urgent action was needed: “The 2040 target means that several generations of children will suffer the long term consequences of inhaling sooty particles and oxides of nitrogen,” he said. “The Government needs to act now, with a faster and more robust response to this public health emergency.”

Other commentators have pointed to the lack of attention to other sources of air pollution. Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analyst, said the Government’s plan did not address pollution from construction, farming and gas boilers. [48] Professor Alastair Lewis, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at York University, told the Independent: “There still remain many other urban sources of pollution not only from transport, but also heating, construction, domestic emissions, and external sources of pollution that drift into cities from outside, most notably from the agricultural sector. Some other urban sources of pollution are even on an upwards trend, most notably from wood burning stoves.” [49]

Plan criticised by transport unions

Unions representing the car manufacturing sector have expressed concern over the potential impact on employment when conventional vehicles are phased out. Speaking to the Guardian, Tony Burke, assistant general secretary of Unite, said: “The announcement has wide-ranging implications for the UK economy and future employment prospects of hundreds of thousands of skilled workers. We are calling for a national debate embracing employers, unions and ministers.” [50] And unions representing rail workers have also condemned the Government’s plan, pointing to the recent decision of the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to abandon plans to electrify parts of the rail network. Speaking to the Independent, Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, said the proposed ban on petrol and diesel vehicles “exposes the rank hypocrisy of their decision to shelve long-planned rail electrification works. Puffed up news announcements about plans that are a generation away will not mask the reality of scrapped modernisation programmes on our railways in the here and now,” he said. [51]

Environment Secretary responds: “It’s up to local councils to do the hard work,” he says

The Environment Secretary Michael Gove responded to some of these criticisms on the Today programme on BBC Radio Four. [52] On charging motorists to enter clean air zones, he said the idea had been rejected and that it was up to local authorities to come up with imaginative solutions. “I don’t believe that it is necessary to bring in charging, but we will work with local authorities in order to determine what the best approach is,” he said. He described charging as “a blunt instrument,” saying he would prefer to use “a series of surgical interventions.” “That’s both fairer to drivers and also likely to be more effective, more quickly in the areas that count,” he said. On the idea of a scrappage scheme for old diesel vehicles, he said he had no ideological objection to the idea but insisted it was up to local councils to do the hard work and put them forward. “Everyone acknowledges that scrappage schemes in the past have been poor value for money,” he said. “Essentially they pay people for something they are already going to do.”

But speaking for Client Earth, air quality lawyer Anna Heslop said the plan would fail without a national network of clean air zones, which the Government’s own evidence showed would be the most effective option. “We will be holding the Government to account on this,” she said. “They have been in breach of these limits for seven years, and we will continue to do that.” [53]

European Commission: The Final Word?

Whilst the Government’s air quality plan shifts the burden of responsibility onto local authorities, its press release also places part of the blame for rising NO2 levels on the EU. It states: “The UK is one of 17 EU countries breaching annual targets for nitrogen dioxide, a problem which has been made worse by the failure of the European testing regime for vehicle emissions.” Given the fact that the Government was aware of the flawed data in its projections of NO2 emissions, as mentioned above, one can only describe this comment as somewhat hypocritical. It is also ironic given the fact that in February 2014 the European Commission began infringement proceedings against the UK for its failure to reduce NO2 levels. The EC issued a “letter of formal notice” to the UK Government, which is the first stage in a process that could culminate in the imposition of fines by the European Court of Justice. [54] And in February this year, the EC issued the UK with a final warning to comply with air quality laws that have been breached for the last seven years. [55] In a press release, the EC said NO2 emissions were over the legal limit in 16 air quality zones in the UK, including London, Birmingham, Leeds, and Glasgow. According to BBC News, Alexander Winterstein, speaking on behalf of the EC, was asked whether the UK would remain bound by any legal proceedings after leaving the EU. “For as long as the UK is a member of the European Union, rights and obligations apply,” he said. [56] As mentioned above, evidence submitted in court has suggested that the Government’s timetable on this issue is motivated by the prospect of EU fines, rather than the need to comply with a legal requirement in as short a time as possible, and the latest plan does little to suggest otherwise.

Acknowledgement

Photograph: Hope Street, Glasgow © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The caption says: “According to Friends of the Earth, this is the most polluted street in Scotland for nitrogen dioxide, resulting from vehicle exhaust fumes.” In 2016. the nitrogen dioxide level at Hope Street, Glasgow, was an average of 65µg/m3. See ‘Scotland’s Most Polluted Streets Revealed – 5 New Pollution Zones Declared’, Friends of the Earth Scotland press release, 15/01/2017. Accessed from: https://foe.scot/press-release/scotland-s-most-polluted-streets-revealed-5-new-pollution-zones-declared/.

Notes

[1] ‘Plan for roadside NO2 concentrations published’, UK Government press release, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/plan-for-roadside-no2-concentrations-published.
[2] See Martin Goodman, ‘An Air That Kills’, in Client Earth: Building an ecological civilisation, Martin Goodman and James Thornton, London: Scribe Publications, 2017.
[3] ‘Gove falls at first hurdle on air pollution, say environmental lawyers’, Client Earth press release, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/gove-falls-first-hurdle-air-pollution-plans-environmental-lawyers/.
[4] Quoted by Ian Johnston in ‘Why the Government’s plan to ban petrol and diesel cars may not achieve anything’, The Independent, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/petrol-diesel-car-ban-government-air-pollution-2040-may-not-achieve-anything-environment-a7860971.html.
[5] ‘Air Quality Standards’, European Commission, last updated 22/09/2017. Accessed from: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/quality/standards.htm.
[6] Implementation of the Air Quality Directive. A study for the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. Nagl, C., Schneider, J., and Thielen, P. April 2016. Accessed as a PDF from: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/578986/IPOL_STU(2016)578986_EN.pdf.
[7] Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution, Royal College of Physicians, February 2016. Available as a PDF from: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution.
[8] Ibid: see [2].
[9] For a summary of the steps leading up to the UK Supreme Court ruling in 2015, see The UK Supreme Court ruling in the ClientEarth case: Consequences and next steps, Client Earth, September 2015. Accessed as a PDF from: https://www.documents.clientearth.org/wp-content/uploads/library/2015-09-17-the-uk-supreme-court-ruling-in-the-clientearth-case-consequences-and-next-steps-ce-en.pdf.
[10] Ibid: see [2].
[11] Ibid: see [5].
[12] As reported by Martin Goodman: see [2].
[13] Ibid: see [12]. For the judgement, see ‘R (on the application of ClientEarth) (Appellant) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent)’, Supreme Court Judgements, 29 April 2015. Accessed as a PDF from: https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2012-0179-judgment.pdf.
[14] ‘UK Supreme Court orders Government to take “immediate action” on air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 29/04/2015. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-supreme-court-orders-government-take-immediate-action-air-pollution/.
[15] ‘UK Ministers facing new legal action over air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 14/09/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-ministers-facing-new-legal-action-over-air-pollution/. See also the earlier statements: ‘Government Ministers ignoring ruling on air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 11/09/2015, at https://www.clientearth.org/government-ministers-ignoring-ruling-on-air-pollution, and ‘Government releases air pollution plans’, Client Earth press release, 12/09/2015, at https://www.clientearth.org/government-releases-air-pollution-plans/
[16] Ibid: see [2].
[17] Evidence of the Treasury’s involvement emerged at a hearing at the High Court in October 2016. See: ‘Government denied clean air zones to dangerously polluted UK cities’, Client Earth press release, 26/10/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/government-denied-clean-air-zones-dangerously-polluted-uk-cities/.
[18] ‘”Arrogant” UK Government response to air quality will face court challenge’, Client Earth press release, 17/12/2015. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/arrogant-uk-government-response-to-air-quality-will-face-court-challenge/.
[19] ‘ClientEarth takes government back to court over killer air pollution’, Client Earth press release, 18/03/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/clientearth-takes-government-back-court-killer-air-pollution/.
[20] Air Quality, House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 27 April 2016. Accessed as a PDF from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmenvfru/479/479.pdf . For a summary, see Damian Carrington, ‘MPs: UK air pollution is a “public health emergency”‘, The Guardian, 27/04/2016, at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/27/uk-air-pollution-public-health-emergency-crisis-diesel-cars.
[21] Ibid [20], Paragraph 43. The EU’s decision to implement ‘real world’ tests was announced in a press release in February 2016. See: ‘Vehicle emissions in real driving conditions: Council gives green light to second package’, European Council press release, 12/02/2016. Accessed from: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/02/12-vehicle-emissions-in-real-driving-conditions-2nd-package/. The European Commission’s regulations on vehicle emissions are summarised in ‘Air pollution from the main sources – Air emissions from road vehicles’ at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/sources/road.htm. The EC says: “To deal with high on-road emissions from passenger vehicles, where a significant discrepancy with the laboratory testing has been confirmed in recent years, the Commission has developed the Real-Driving Emissions test procedure, which will apply from 1 September 2017.” On emission limits, the EC says: “Euro 5 and 6 Regulation 715/2007/EC sets the emission limits for cars for regulated pollutants, in particular nitrogen oxides (NOX, i.e. the combined emissions of NO and NO2 ) of 80mg/km.” Part of the problem of setting emission limits is the availability of accurate data on ‘real world’ driving conditions. However, an article in the Guardian which appeared shortly before the Efra report reported that “the most comprehensive set of data yet published” showed that “97% of all modern diesel cars emit more toxic nitrogen oxide pollution than the official limit when driven on the road.” See Damian Carrington, Gwyn Topham and Peter Walker, ‘Revealed: nearly all new diesel cars exceed official pollution limits’, The Guardian, 23/04/2016. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/apr/23/diesel-cars-pollution-limits-nox-emissions. The Guardian report says that the new data followed the publication earlier in the week by the Department for Transport of emissions results for 37 vehicles, “all of which emitted more NOX on the road than the official limit – but the new data covers more than 250 vehicles in more stringently standardised road conditions. The data was collected and published by testing specialists Emission Analytics and is available at http://equaindex.com/.
[22] Damian Carrington, ‘Sadiq Khan joins air pollution court case against UK government’, The Guardian, 26/05/2016. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/26/sadiq-khan-joins-air-pollution-court-case-against-uk-government.
[23] Adam Vaughan and Esther Addley, ‘Boris Johnson “held back” negative findings of air pollution report’, The Guardian, 17/05/2016. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/17/boris-johnson-held-back-negative-findings-of-air-pollution-report.
[24] Ibid: see [22].
[25] Paragraph 86 in ‘Approved Judgment of the High Court: ClientEarth (Claimant) v Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defendant)’, Citation Number: [2016] EWHC 2740, Case Number: CO/1508/2016, 02/11/2016. Accessed as a PDF from: https://www.documents.clientearth.org/wp-content/uploads/library/2016-11-02-high-court-judgment-on-clientearth-no-2-vs-ssefra-on-uk-air-pollution-plans-ext-en.pdf.
[26] Ibid [25], Paragraph 85.
[27] Ibid [25], Paragraph 66.
[28] Ibid [25], Paragraph 50.
[29] ‘ClientEarth wins air pollution case in High Court’, Client Earth press release, 02/11/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/major-victory-health-uk-high-court-government-inaction-air-pollution/.
[30] ‘High Court gives UK Government 8 months to draw up fresh air quality plan,’ Client Earth press release, 21/11/2016. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/high-court-gives-uk-government-8-months-draw-fresh-air-quality-plan/.
[31] The procrastination episode is detailed in a string of press releases from Client Earth. See:
(a) ‘UK Government makes last-ditch bid to delay essential clean air plans’, Client Earth press release, 25/04/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-government-makes-last-ditch-bid-delay-essential-clean-air-plans/.
(b) ‘High Court orders UK air pollution hearing’, Client Earth press release, 25/04/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/high-court-orders-air-pollution-hearing/.
(c) ‘High Court rules air pollution plans must be published before General Election’, Client Earth press release, 27/04/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/judge-refuses-uk-government-permission-delay-air-quality-plan-til-general-election/.
The UK Government chose not to appeal the High Court ruling. See: ‘Government will not appeal High Court ruling on air pollution plan deadline’, Client Earth press release, 02/05/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/government-will-not-appeal-high-court-ruling-air-pollution-plan-deadline/.
[32] ‘UK Government releases ‘weak’ air quality plans’, Client Earth press release, 05/05/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-government-releases-weak-air-quality-plans/.
[33] ‘ClientEarth challenges UK government’s air pollution consultation’, Client Earth press release, 31/05/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/clientearth-challenges-uk-governments-air-pollution-consultation/.
[34] ‘High Court judgment on air pollution a “shot across the bows” of government’, Client Earth press release, 05/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/high-court-judgment-air-pollution-shot-across-bows-government/.
[35] Ibid: see [1].
[36] Grace Rahman, ‘Motorways could be covered with large tunnels to trap pollution’, The Independent, 03/08/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/pollution-motorway-tunnels-cover-roads-air-quality-highways-england-a7874221.html.
[37] Highways England Air Quality Strategy, 02/08/2017. Available as a PDF from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/highways-england-air-quality-strategy. The agency also says it has previously trialled paint that ‘eats’ oxides of nitrogen alongside the road network.
[38] Rob Merrick, ‘Petrol-diesel car ban: Government plan dismissed as “smokescreen” after key air pollution policies dumped’, The Independent, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/petrol-diesel-car-ban-government-air-pollution-2040-policies-michael-gove-environment-groups-deaths-a7860361.html.
[39] Ibid: see [1].
[40] ‘Gove falls at first hurdle on air pollution, say environmental lawyers’, Client Earth press release, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/gove-falls-first-hurdle-air-pollution-plans-environmental-lawyers/.
[41] ‘ClientEarth demands urgent clarification on UK government’s air quality plans’, Client Earth press release, 16/08/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/clientearth-demands-urgent-clarification-uk-governments-air-quality-plans/.
[42] Liam Kirkaldy, ‘ClientEarth calls for clarity on Scottish Government air pollution plans’, Holyrood Magazine, 03/08/2017. Accessed from: https://www.holyrood.com/articles/news/clientearth-calls-clarity-scottish-government-air-pollution-plans. In an earlier press release, Client Earth said the Government’s air quality plan “fails to ensure proper measures will clean up illegal pollution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland” and that it would be raising the lack of detail about the devolved regions at the High Court hearing on 5th July 2017. See: ‘UK Government has a duty to protect all UK citizens from pollution’, Client Earth press release, 03/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.clientearth.org/uk-government-duty-protect-all-citizens-air-pollution-environmental-lawyers/.
[43] Rowena Mason and Damian Carrington, ‘Government’s air quality plan branded inadequate by city leaders, The Guardian, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/26/governments-air-quality-plan-is-cynical-headline-grabbing-say-critics.
[44] ‘Diesel and petrol car ban: Clean air strategy “not enough”‘, BBC News, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40731164.
[45] Ibid: see [43].
[46] Ian Johnston, ‘Why the Government’s plan to ban petrol and diesel cars may not achieve anything’, The Independent, 26/07/2017. Accessed from: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/petrol-diesel-car-ban-government-air-pollution-2040-may-not-achieve-anything-environment-a7860971.html.
[47] Ibid: see [43].
[48] Ibid: see [44].
[49] Ibid: see [46].
[50] Ibid: see [43].
[51] Ibid: see [46].
[52] For a summary, see [38].
[53] Ibid: see [38].
[54] ‘Environment: Commission takes action against UK for persistent air pollution problems’, European Commission press release, 20/02/2014. Accessed from: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-154_en.htm. The Commission gave the UK two months to respond before raising the issue with the European Court of Justice, but Client Earth reported in September 2015 that the case was on hold pending the conclusion of the Client Earth case (see [9]).
[55] ‘Commission warns Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom of continued air pollution breaches’, European Commission press release, 15/02/2017. Accessed from: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-238_en.htm.
[56] ‘Air pollution “final warning” from European Commission to UK’, BBC News, 1151/02/2017. Accessed from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-38980510.

In or Out? Environmental campaigners discuss the EU referendum

How will Thursday’s vote affect environmental policy? The RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, World Wildlife Fund and Friends of the Earth examine the evidence

June 22nd 2016
On Thursday 23rd June, the UK is holding a referendum on its membership of the European Union. Two issues have tended to dominate the debate. For those who want Britain to leave, the main issue is immigration; for those who want Britain to remain, it’s the economy. But how will the outcome affect environmental policy?

Organisations such as the RSPB and Friends of the Earth have been working to ensure that the environment is not forgotten in the debate about EU membership. The RSPB has canvassed views from representatives of the two official campaigns, ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ and ‘Vote Leave,’ asking them to explain how their proposals would help protect the environment. [1]

Speaking on behalf of the remain campaign, Caroline Lucas MP gave three reasons why staying in the EU would benefit the environment. Firstly, it meant Britain was party to a set of common rules that serve environmental protection and set limits to pollution and waste; the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives and the EU’s Maritime Safety Agency were cited as examples. Secondly, she argued that the EU helps to tackle climate change by setting ambitious plans for reducing energy consumption, limiting carbon emissions, and transitioning to renewable energy sources. Thirdly, she referred to EU’s funding for research on environmental protection: “The EU LIFE programme,” she said, “worth over £600 million, backs 11 UK environment projects in the areas of environment policy, nature and biodiversity. In addition to this, the EU’s research programme is expected to provide £8.3 billion in funding for cutting edge research at our universities, which will help us develop new sustainable technology and further our understanding of our planet and habitat.” She also mentioned EU’s action to regulate pesticides that are known to kill bees, and work on banning the hunting of seals and dolphins.

George Eustice MP, Minister for Farming, Food & the Marine Environment, spoke on behalf of the leave campaign. He said: “It is time to question the lazy assumption that environmental improvement can only occur when democratic government is set aside in favour of a pan-European legal system, and when the public are disempowered… We should not seek to side step the public through technocratic EU law. Instead we should engage the public to secure genuine, politically-led change.” He referred to the Berne Convention and its legally-binding commitments to improve habitats and protect wildlife, which the UK signed up to in the late 1970s. If the UK had stuck with that model, he said, and taken responsibility ourselves for delivering improvements through tailored national legislation, progress would have happened more effectively and perhaps faster. “Instead,” he said, “we abdicated all responsibility to the EU and sat on our hands like infants waiting to be told what to do. It’s time to grow up and take control.”

How do these arguments stack up? The RSPB says EU policy has had both positive and negative consequences for the environment: “Current evidence suggests that the EU has had a positive impact through some of its environment policies, most notably through the Birds and Habitats Directives but also by setting water quality, climate change, air quality and renewable energy targets. However, significant concerns remain about some sectoral policies (such as for agriculture and fisheries) and environmentally harmful subsidies.”

The RSPB highlights two aspects of EU policy to illustrate this point. Firstly, farming policy; and secondly, nature legislation. [2]

On farming policy, the RSPB says: “Agriculture policy in the EU was historically about driving up food production. As a result trees, hedgerows and wild flowers disappeared from our countryside – squeezed out by bigger fields, ever-bigger farm machinery and an increasing reliance on pesticides. This intensification of agriculture is the number one cause of declines in the UK’s wildlife in recent decades… Changes have reduced some of the harmful impacts, and a small proportion of the EU Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) budget does now go towards supporting nature-friendly farmers and the great work they do. But the EU’s agriculture policy continues to fail farmers and our wildlife, whilst accounting for almost 40% of the EU budget – there’s a long way to go to reach a truly sustainable agriculture policy for the EU.”

On the other hand, the RSPB says the EU’s nature conservation laws “have been a driving force for establishing and strengthening nature conservation measures in the UK and other Member States. These laws provide protection for wildlife, in particular by safeguarding places that are important for them. Over 20,000 square kilometres of land are protected in the UK alone – including the New Forest, Ramsey Island, and the Moray Firth. These laws have been a lifeline for otters, marsh fritillary butterflies and bitterns, among many others.”

To examine these issues in more detail, the RSPB joined forces with the Wildlife Trusts and the World Wildlife Fund in March to commission a report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), an independent research institute. [3] The report examines the EU’s track record on the environment and produces the evidence which is summarised above. In addition, the report looks at different UK exit scenarios and considers the arrangements that would need to be established to maintain some of the existing environmental protection provided by EU membership.

Two exit scenarios are examined: one is leaving the EU but staying in the European Economic Area or European Free Trade Association; the second is a complete exit and total independence. On these exit scenarios, the report says: “Recent UK government policy has tended to favour deregulation and competitiveness over environmental regulation, so leaving the EU would result (in the immediate term at least) in considerable uncertainty for wildlife, and for business investment in green infrastructure.”

This last point is taken up in a blog post by RSPB Chief Executive Mike Clarke. He says the RSPB is delighted that both campaigns responded positively to the challenge to set out how their respective positions will deliver for nature. “However,” he says, “no one from the ‘Leave’ campaign has yet been able to reassure us that we wouldn’t need to start again from scratch were we to leave the EU. What will happen to nature in the meantime? Recent calls from supporters of ‘Leave’ to scrap the Nature Directives – which have been proven to work so effectively where properly implemented – are of great concern.”

The IEEP report says that “Britain’s membership of the EU has, on balance, delivered benefits for our natural environment that would be hard to replicate if we left,” and this view is echoed by Mike Clarke. He concludes: “In weighing up the current evidence, the uncertainties and the balance of risks, we have concluded that the safer option for nature is for the UK to remain a part of the European Union.”

Friends of the Earth: “If we leave the EU, the impact on our environment will be negative and long term.”

In July 2015, Friends of the Earth produced a policy position paper on the UK’s membership of the EU. [4] The paper summarises the environmental gains but also points out the problems: “the Common Agriculture Policy, for example, has proved an environmental disaster.” It also points to the potentially damaging effects to the environment of the TTIP negotiations, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently under discussion with the EU and the USA as trading partners. The paper calls for the EU to change its priorities, improve existing legislation, and reinvigorate democracy.

Leaving the EU, however, would have a negative impact on the environment. The paper states: “To protect the environment and human health, we need to take action before damage occurs. Yet UK politicians routinely argue against precautionary decision-making… Fortunately, the precautionary principle is enshrined in EU treaties. EU-wide laws also prevent countries gaining a competitive advantage in their industries by setting lower environmental standards. If we leave the EU, the impact on our environment will be negative and long term.”

In a series of blog posts, Friends of the Earth campaigners describe the environmental gains of EU membership in more detail:

  1. Cleaner Beaches: Campaigner Anna Baum says the UK pumped untreated sewage into the sea until 1998, longer than any other country in Europe. Successful legal action by the European Commission to enforce the EU’s 1976 Bathing Water Directive resulted in improvements to many of the UK’s beaches, but only 60% meet the new ‘Excellent’ standard of the revised 2006 Bathing Water Directive: “If the UK leaves the EU, we will no longer be subject to the Bathing Water Directive. Without external EU pressure it seems likely that standards will slip.”
  2. Protecting Bees from Harmful Pesticides: In 2013 a majority of EU member states voted to restrict the use of three pesticides known to be harmful to bees, following a report by scientists across the EU into the reasons for declining bee populations, with 33 species considered to be under threat of extinction. Sam Lowe says: “If we weren’t in the EU, these dangerous pesticides would never have been restricted in the UK. The UK vigorously opposed the introduction of the restrictions despite the scientific evidence.”
  3. Protecting Biodiversity and Natural Habitats: The EU is currently reviewing its Nature Directives and is under pressure to relax them, on the grounds that they hamper development and economic growth, and impose costs and regulatory ‘red tape’ on business. Sam Lowe says the UK has a poor track record of putting nature first: “The farming minister and prominent leave campaigner, George Eustice, told The Guardian that the birds and habitats directives would go if we vote to leave the EU, describing them as ‘spirit crushing’.” [5]
  4. Rethinking Waste: The Circular Economy: EU Directives such as the Landfill Directive and the Waste Framework Directive have set targets for recycling and the amount of waste going to landfill sites. “All of this has led to a cultural shift in favour of recycling,” says Henry Chown, with the UK close to meeting the target of recycling 50% of household waste by 2020. However: “If we left the EU, the first thing we’d miss out on would be the Circular Economy Package.”
  5. Tackling Climate Change: Reducing carbon emissions and the burning of fossil fuels will help to tackle climate change. In 2009, the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive set a European-wide target of achieving 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. It also set national targets and requested member states to produce action plans setting out how they would meet their obligations. Sam Lowe says: “This has had a huge impact on the UK. It has been largely responsible for the rapid growth in renewable electricity that we have seen in the last five years.” However: “The UK has been one of the fiercest critics of renewable energy targets. As a result, the next phase of the Renewable Energy Directive looks to be far weaker than what is needed… Recent government attacks on solar and onshore wind suggest an uncertain outlook for UK renewables post-Brexit.”
  6. Improving Air Quality: Sam Lowe says: “EU action on pollution has led to big improvements in the quality of our air but much more needs to be done.” For example, the UK has broken EU safety limits for nitrogen dioxide emissions for a number of years, which led environmental law firm Client Earth to take the UK Government to court. This resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that the government must take “immediate action” to meet EU safety standards. Given the UK’s track record, it seems highly likely that leaving the EU would lead to a lowering of safety standards.
  7. Protection from Harmful Chemicals: Dr Michael Warhurst is an Executive Director of CHEM Trust, a UK charity that aims to prevent chemical products from causing long-term damage to the environment and human health by ensuring that safer alternatives are used instead of more harmful ones. Writing for Friends of the Earth, he says EU chemical regulations in the form of REACH represents the world’s leading chemicals regulatory system. The system improves our knowledge of chemical hazards, helps companies use chemicals more safely, and restricts the use of some of the worst chemicals. “The UK has not been at the forefront of trying to ensure tight controls over chemicals (unlike Sweden or Denmark),” he says, “so we consider it unlikely that a UK outside the EU would put in place measures comparable to those in the EU.”
  8. Sustainable Fishing: Finally, in a guest post, Griffin Carpenter and Bryce Stewart, two academics working in environmental economics and maritime ecosystem management, unravel some of the misconceptions surrounding the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. A recent analysis of 118 years of statistics revealed that the vast majority of the decline in fish stocks occurred prior to the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy in 1983: “In fact, the policy is now overall helping, not harming, the country’s fisheries. Since EU policy was reformed in 2002, the health of many fish stocks has improved. By 2011 the majority of assessed fisheries were considered to be sustainably fished… The Water Framework Directive and Marine Strategy Framework Directive commit EU members to restore and protect the environment. It is therefore unclear why the UK would want to abandon ship at this point.”

Acknowledgement

Photo: Cors Caron and the Afon Teifi near Tregaron, Ceredigion © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The photo shows the River Teifi “flowing through the extensive raised bog of Cors Caron at its southern end, seen from the old Teifi bridge at Pont Einon. Cors Caron is a raised bog system covering more than 325 hectares. It is 6 kilometres in length and provides a habitat for a wide range of wildlife and plants. The bog itself was formed 12,000 years ago when the last of the Ice Age glaciers melted away. A large shallow lake was left, which very gradually filled with sediments and vegetation, forming peat and later, acid peat. In 1955, Cors Caron was declared a National Nature Reserve in order to preserve this increasingly scarce land form. In 1993, Cors Caron was placed on a list of wetland sites of international importance under the terms of the Ramsar Convention.”

The Afon Teifi / River Teifi is listed as a Natura 2000 site, protected under the EU Habitats Directive since 1998. The EU data says the site covers a total of 715 hectares and protects 8 species of the Nature Directives and 6 habitat types of the Habitats Directive. Natural Resources Wales says: “Wales has 20 Special Protection Areas for vulnerable birds and 92 Special Areas of Conservation for other rare species and threatened natural habitats. Together they are known as Natura 2000, and along with areas across Europe, they form an unparalleled network of international importance for nature conservation. Wales’ Natura 2000 network covers more than 700,000 hectares (8.5% of Welsh land area and 35% of territorial waters).” Management of these sites was helped by funding from the EU’s LIFE Programme.

References

[1] ‘The RSPB: EU referendum: Statements from the official campaigns’.

[2] ‘The RSPB: EU referendum: What does the EU do for nature?’

[3] The EU, the environment and potential consequences of a UK departure from the Union, Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP). Available as a PDF download from the IEEP website. The report is summarised in ‘The EU & Our Environment: What UK membership means for the environment, and potential consequences of a UK departure from the Union’ (a joint publication from the RSPB, WWF and The Wildlife Trusts, 1 June 2016). Available as a PDF download from the RSPB website.

[4] ‘Our Position Paper on EU Membership,’ Friends of the Earth, July 2015. Available as a PDF download from the Friends of the Earth website.

[5] ‘Brexit would free UK from ‘spirit-crushing’ green directives, says minister’, Arthur Neslen in The Guardian.

Scientists warn of widespread pollution from historic landfills

4,000 old landfill sites are at risk of flooding, some containing hazardous waste

March 9th 2016
Scientists at the British Geological Survey and Queen Mary College, University of London, are warning that the UK faces the risk of pollutants leaking out from the large number of historic landfill sites that pre-date EU waste regulations introduced in the 1990s. It is estimated that there are 21,027 historic landfills in the UK, with 1,264 sites situated in estuaries and coastal areas at risk of erosion, and a further 2,946 sites located on floodplains. Current regulations require landfills to be sealed with a protective lining, thereby insulating the waste from the surrounding land and watercourses. However, older landfill sites, some of which date from the late nineteenth century, are unlikely to have such protection, leaving them at risk of flooding from coastal erosion or severe weather such as heavy rain and storm surges.

A report produced by CIRIA in 2012 [1] says that the number of historic landfills is likely to be an under-estimate owing to a large number of unrecorded illegal sites. In addition, as the 21,000 historic landfills were developed when there were no legal requirements for their management or monitoring, records of the waste that was deposited in them can be incomplete or non-existent. Speaking to The Independent, Dr Daren Gooddy, an environmental chemist at the British Geological Survey, said he was particularly concerned about those historic landfills that are located in areas with a high flood risk and that contain dangerous substances such as hazardous chemicals and asbestos. He calculated that there are 1,655 such sites. “While it’s hard to say for sure, I would suggest that many of these legacy sites are vulnerable to flooding,” he said. “Even when flooding does not occur these sites leach out contaminated waste, which generally gets transported towards the nearest river.”

Dr Kate Spencer, environmental chemist at Queen Mary College, University of London, has been carrying out research to assess the potential impact of flooding and coastal erosion on historic landfill sites on low-lying coastal areas. Her research team is working with the Environment Agency to create a vulnerability ranking which will help to identify those sites that present the greatest danger, based on the risk of flooding and the contents of the landfill. “The work we’ve done in the South-East suggests that there has already been widespread pollution from historic landfills,” she said. “At one site we actually found a blue poison bottle from a pharmacist that had a skull and crossbones on it, with a stopper and liquid inside.”

In a blog post for Friends of the Earth, Guy Shrubsole reports on a visit in 2015 to a leaking landfill at Tilbury on the Thames estuary. Walking along the coast, he discovered that a two kilometre stretch of the Thames foreshore was filled with waste. “But this wasn’t just rubbish deposited by the waters of the Thames as it sweeps through London,” he says. “It was clearly eroding out of the sandy banks next to the shoreline, lapped by high tides. The remains of a former sea wall, derelict and ineffective, could still be seen below the high-water mark. It was providing no defence at all to the hungry estuary, which had chewed away at the land to reveal layers and layers of landfilled refuse.”

Guy Shrubsole says that maps produced by the Environment Agency show there are several historic landfills in the Tilbury area, but tidal defences at such sites are not maintained, leaving them with no protection from tidal surges and rising sea levels. “No one is taking any responsibility for the huge amounts of waste that is now very clearly leaking out of the old Tilbury landfills,” he says. “And this is just one example. If, as the research suggests, there are thousands of old landfills at risk of leaking their wastes into watercourses and the sea across the UK, then this is a massive, ticking time bomb.”

Dr Kate Spencer said that historic landfill sites “date back to a time when there were no protective linings, no regulation about what went in and little in the way of records about the contents. Many are on coastlines highly vulnerable to coastal erosion, storm surges and flooding and the big concern is that they will become even more vulnerable as climate change makes storms more frequent and intense.”

As we reported in a previous news item, scientists from the British Geological Survey have carried out research into river pollution from historic landfill sites. The focus of their investigation was Port Meadow which lies on the banks of the River Thames, north-west of Oxford, where 11 such sites are located. Their research, based on ammonium sampling, concluded that there are potentially thousands of historic landfill sites that are currently leaching large amounts of nitrogen into major rivers, which can damage water quality and trigger nutrient pollution. As climate change makes flooding more likely, leakages from landfills located on floodplains are also likely to increase.

Reference
[1] Cooper, N., Bower, G,. Tyson, R., Flikweert, J., Rayner, S., Hallas, A.: Guidance on the Management of Landfill Sites and Land Contamination on Eroding or Low-Lying Coastlines (C718). CIRIA, 2012.

Acknowledgement
Photograph: Cottenham Landfill, near Chittering, Cambridgeshire © Copyright Hugh Venables and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Pilot wetlands project reduces phosphates from sewage effluent

Norfolk Rivers Trust wetlands project is reducing phosphate levels by 90%, say project managers

Oct 13th 2015

An integrated wetlands project managed by Norfolk Rivers Trust is piloting a new method of reducing phosphate levels in effluent legally discharged from Anglian Water’s sewage treatment works near Cromer in north Norfolk. The wetlands have been created alongside the River Mun as it runs through the Templewood Estate near Northrepps. and the scheme is the result of a partnership between the Norfolk Rivers Trust and the owner of the estate, Eddie Anderson, who lives at Templewood House and owns the first mile of the river.

Construction of the wetlands started a year ago when three shallow lagoons were dug on the estate and filled with 18,000 emergent aquatic plants. The uppermost lagoon is situated 250 metres away from the Northrepps sewage treatment works and the output of the works is piped directly into this lagoon. The water is then cascaded through each subsequent lagoon, with the plants and silt trapping the phosphates before returning the water to the five-mile long River Mun, which rises in Northrepps and enters the North Sea at Mundesley, a few miles south-east of Cromer. The project ran for twelve months and finished at the end of September 2015, and the managers of the project are now gauging the results.

According to the Eastern Daily Press, the project managers say the new wetlands are removing about 90% of the phosphates which would otherwise be fertilising the algae that had been blooming rapidly in the River Mun. As a result, they have recorded a huge increase in wildlife, including a 700% leap in Red and Amber-listed protected birds, and 16 species of dragonfly.

Jonathan Lewis, Project Officer for the Norfolk Rivers Trust, said: “These integrated constructed wetlands were pioneered in Ireland 30 years ago. This is the first one in Norfolk and we are pioneering it as a natural, sustainable method which could bring both economic, ecological and community benefits. The treated water is cleaned to human standards of safety, but the standards for wildlife are very different. In terms of algal growth, to have so much phosphate in there is like chucking a load of Miracle-Gro in the river. It creates this boom-and-bust of oxygen and the rapid amount of plant growth.”

He explained how the scheme works to reduce the phosphate levels: “The wetlands are filled with these emergent aquatic plants,” he said, “and the initial gain from them in terms of phosphate is not much – they take it up, but then they put it back when they die in the winter. But they bind it into the silt and they provide a complexity to the way the water flows through the wetland. One layer is aerobic, so there is oxygen there, but there is an anaerobic section as well and it is that combination which traps the phosphates and allows the aerated water to move through.”

One motivation for the project stems from the state of a lake situated in the middle of the Templewood Estate. Jonathan Lewis said the lake has been destroyed by eutrophication, “due to the algae that has grown profusely with the nutrients in the water – and most of that is phosphates from the water treatment works. Anglian Water is treating the domestic sewage from Northrepps and what they put into the river is completely legal, but we know it is not clean. But we cannot just say Anglian Water is responsible for polluting the river, and we want to establish and confirm good relations with them.”

Anglian Water and the WFD (Water Framework Directive)

In response, Anglian Water said simply reducing phosphate limits in treated water was not an option under the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) which puts the emphasis on more sustainable ways of improving the health and ecology of rivers and watercourses. Emma Staples from Anglian Water said: “The situation with phosphates is quite an interesting one. It comes from household detergents, shampoos and washing powders, and as a result it is due to be limited in certain products by 2017. We do treat for it and we remove as much as possible to comply with the regulations that are set, but the EU Water Framework Directive says we are not allowed to simply add more treatment to bring the levels down. Any type of treatment is expensive and has big energy costs and big environmental costs, so the WFD is essentially saying that carbon-expensive treatment processes are not sustainable for the long term. So we need to look at more sustainable ways of looking at water quality. That is the premise that underpins the catchment management approach which we are working on nationally with the Rivers Trust.”

The new regulations that will come into force in 2017 will limit the amount of phosphates in household items such as dishwasher powders, shampoos and household laundry detergents, thereby reducing the amount of phosphates getting into the sewage system in the first place. Emma Staples said such measures, coupled with community projects like the Norfolk Rivers Trust wetlands scheme, could be part of the long-term solution. “Community projects like the one at Northrepps are to be applauded,” she said. “Those community initiatives are going to be really key because they are a generally sustainable way to solve the problem. We are keen to support that kind of work.”

The development of the Norfolk wetlands was aided by the help of 30 volunteers from neighbouring villages, and Jonathan Lewis of the Norfolk Rivers Trust said he was impressed by the community involvement in the project: “The river touches seven parishes and everyone along the river has shown an interest,” he said. “This is a tiny set-up, but it is the first in the UK so it is a model we could see more often. One of the designers was a hydrologist and he said this is 16% of the cost of a traditional phosphate-stripping device, and 23% of the running cost. If you can find a bit of land that is flat and low enough to take this water, it is a no-brainer.”

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, who visited the wetlands recently, said the WFD should be amended to make such initiatives a legal requirement: “The 90% reduction in phosphates is incredible, but it also indicates that the existing legislation is flawed,” he said. “Anglian Water can say they are meeting the legislative requirements – and they are – but is that generating clean and healthy rivers? It is not. Just looking at the watercourse here demonstrated the impact of phosphates coming out of sewage, so it seems to me that there is a case for amending the European directives to require this kind of approach to be taken elsewhere. There could be a big environmental gain at very little cost. There has been a big increase in bird life, which is very exciting, and I am very keen for Anglian Water to work very closely with the Norfolk Rivers Trust to achieve similar gains elsewhere in the county.”

Phosphate concentrations in European rivers have declined over the last two decades, says EEA

In a recent report, the European Environment Agency (EEA) says: “The continuing presence of pollutants in Europe’s waters threatens aquatic ecosystems and raises concerns for public health. Discharge from urban waste water treatment, and industrial effluents and losses from farming, are the main sources of water pollution.”

The EEA says that improvements in waste water treatment, together with measures to reduce agricultural inputs of nitrate at a national level and at a European level (the Nitrates Directive), have seen nitrate concentrations in European rivers decline by an average of 20% over the period 1992 to 2012. Phosphate concentrations have also declined: “Many years of investment in the sewage system, and better waste water treatment under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive – together with national legislation – have led to some remarkable improvements. Europe’s waters are much cleaner today than they were 25 years ago when large quantities of untreated or partially treated urban and industrial waste water were discharged into water. Levels of oxygen-consuming substances, ammonium, and phosphate have decreased markedly in European rivers over the last two decades.”

However, the EEA also says that more work needs to be done and highlights the importance of waste water treatment: “Although considerable success has been achieved in reducing the discharge of pollutants into Europe’s waters in recent decades, challenges remain for urban and industrial waste water and for pollution from agricultural sources. Waste water treatment must continue to play a critical role in the protection of Europe’s surface waters, and investment will be required to upgrade waste water treatment and to maintain infrastructure in many European countries. Measures are needed to ensure the removal of emerging pollutants and to reduce storm water discharges.”

The UK Government is currently facing a legal challenge over the state of England’s rivers, in a case brought to the High Court by the World Wildlife Fund in conjunction with the Angling Trust and Fish Legal – see our news item “UK Government faces legal action over health of England’s rivers” for more information.

For the latest news on the Norfolk wetlands project, see the Eastern Daily Press.

For the background to the project, see the Norfolk Rivers Trust.

London’s builders face new rules on construction site equipment

Low Emission Zone sets new air quality standards for construction site machinery

Oct 7th 2015
London has become the first city in the world to impose emissions standards for construction equipment with the aim of reducing air pollution from both nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions. London’s Mayor Boris Johnson wants to introduce an Ultra-Low Emission Zone in Central London from 2020 which will curb emissions from transport and, as a first step, has introduced a Low Emission Zone in Greater London for construction machinery.

It is estimated that up to 12% of nitrogen oxide and 15% of particulate matter pollution in London comes from construction and demolition equipment such as diggers, bulldozers and related vehicles. The Low Emission Zone came into force on the 1st of September 2015 and is expected to cut particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions by about 50% by 2020. The emissions standards are based on the engine emissions standards set in the EU Directive 97/68/EC and apply to all “non-road mobile machinery” of net power between 37kW and 560kW.

Under the new rules, all construction sites in the centre of London will have to replace or retrofit polluting equipment which is more than ten years old. The rules also apply to sites in Greater London that are larger than 1,000 square feet or contain a development of more than ten homes. Some exemptions will be provided where pieces of equipment are not available at the stipulated emission standard or in the volumes required to meet demand. The Greater London Authority is currently holding a consultation on its Low Emission Zone exemption policy.

The scheme is currently going through a six-month introductory period with the focus on raising awareness of the new rules. Following the transition, site managers will be in breach of their planning requirements as set by their local planning authority if a site does not meet the required emissions standards. Penalties will depend on the individual borough and their development control team and could include a delay to the final completion of a project with financial implications for the company concerned. In the long term, the Greater London Authority is seeking additional powers to enable centralised implementation and enforcement of the scheme, including a standardised approach to penalties and fines.

An online register has been set up at nrmm.london to help with the implementation of the scheme. Construction site managers will be able to register all of their construction machinery within the London area.

For more on this story, see Water Briefing.

Acknowledgement

Photograph: Building site at Gilmerton, Edinburgh © Copyright M J Richardson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

New research shows cosmetic products contain large quantities of micro-plastics

“Up to 80 tonnes of micro-plastics could be entering watercourses in the UK every year,” say researchers

Oct 1st 2015

Researchers at Plymouth University have been analysing the quantities of small plastic particles contained in everyday cosmetic and cleaning products such as facial scrubs. The particles – known as micro-beads or micro-plastics – are tiny, measuring a fraction of a millimetre in diameter. Their research has shown that around 100,000 of these micro-plastics could be released into the environment with every application of these types of product.

A press release on the research says that the particles are incorporated as bulking agents and abrasives, and because of their small size it is expected many will not be intercepted by conventional sewage treatment. The researchers estimate this could result in up to 80 tonnes of unnecessary micro-plastic waste entering watercourses every year from the use of these cosmetics in the UK alone, eventually ending up in the oceans and with the potential to cause harm to marine life.

Micro-plastics have been used to replace natural exfoliating materials in cosmetics and have been reported in a variety of products such as hand cleansers, soaps, toothpaste, shaving foam, bubble bath, sunscreen and shampoo. Scientists point to growing evidence that the amount of plastics in marine waters is increasing, with around 700 species of marine organism being reported to encounter marine debris in the natural environment, with plastic debris accounting for over 90% of these encounters.

For the Plymouth University study, the researchers selected brands of facial scrubs which listed plastics among their ingredients, and these were subjected to vacuum filtration to obtain the plastic particles. Subsequent analysis using electron microscopy showed that a 150ml amount of the products could contain between 137,000 and 2.8 million micro-particles.

Lead researcher Imogen Napper said she was shocked to see the quantity of micro-plastics apparent in these everyday cosmetics. “Currently, there are reported to be 80 facial scrubs in the UK market which contain plastic material,” she said. “However, some companies have indicated they will voluntarily phase them out from their products.”

Richard Thompson, Professor of Marine Biology at Plymouth University, said: “Using these products leads to unnecessary contamination of the oceans with millions of micro-plastic particles. There is considerable concern about the accumulation of micro-plastics in the environment. Our previous work has shown micro-plastics can be ingested by fish and shellfish and there is evidence from laboratory studies of adverse effects on marine organisms.”

The research – titled “Characterisation, quantity and sorptive properties of microplastics extracted from cosmetics” – has been published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.