Thurrock in Essex named among cities shamed over air quality

Hazy London skyline seen from Primrose Hill in London. Photo: PA Images

British towns and cities including Thurrock in Essex have been named and shamed by the World Health Organisation for breaching safety levels for air pollution.

Nine urban areas in the UK have been named by the global health body for breaching safe health levels of air quality.

WHO said that across the world most cities that measure outdoor air pollution are failing to meet its guidance for safe levels and are putting residents at risk of respiratory disease and other health problems. Overall, only 12% of the people living in cities reporting on air quality reside in places which comply with WHO's safety levels.

A spokesman said that it appears that air pollution is "getting worse".

WHO's air quality database monitors 1,600 regions around the world, including 36 in Britain.

Earlier this year it estimated that outdoor air pollution was responsible for the deaths of 3.7 million people globally during 2012. Air pollution is associated with deaths from heart disease and stroke, as well as respiratory illnesses and cancers, a spokesman said.

One way to measure air quality is to asses the levels of a type of pollution known as particulate matter (PMs).

WHO sets out a safe annual average level for PMs and its latest data shows that nine British towns and cities breached these limit set for particles known as PM10.

These include Birmingham, Chesterfield, Leeds, London, Nottingham, Sheffield, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent and Thurrock.

However, of the British towns measured, not all provided data for the levels of PM10 including Manchester, Bournemouth and Northampton.

Cities and towns in other parts of the world including China, Pakistan, and India had much higher levels of pollution.

"Too many urban centres today are so enveloped in dirty air that their skylines are invisible," said Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO's assistant director-general for family, children and women's health.

"Not surprisingly, this air is dangerous to breathe. So a growing number of cities and communities worldwide are striving to better meet the needs of their residents - in particular children and the elderly."

Dr Carlos Dora, coordinator for interventions for healthy environments at WHO's Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, added: "We cannot buy clean air in a bottle, but cities can adopt measures that will clean the air and save the lives of their people."

Recently English health officials called on local authorities to do more to protect people from harmful air pollution.

Long-term exposure to air pollution led to around 25,000 deaths in England in 2010, Public Health England (PHE) said.

PHE said that air quality has improved "considerably" in the UK in recent decades due to new, cleaner technology and tighter environmental legislation.

But it said that local action can be taken to reduce the emissions of these man-made particles and people's exposure to air pollution.

Labour's shadow environment minister Barry Gardiner said: "29,000 people in the UK are dying every year because of air pollution in our towns and cities and yet the Government has no strategy.

"This World Health Organisation report shows that there is an urgent need for the Government to take action against this silent killer and reduce the level of air pollution.

"This report shows that the Government's failure is increasing the health inequalities that blight our cities, including Nottingham, London and Birmingham."

Friends of the Earth campaigner Jenny Bates said: "Air pollution is bringing death and misery to millions of people across the world. Tackling it should be an urgent priority for governments and local authorities.

"Tens of thousands of people die prematurely in the UK every year because of poor air quality, and health limits are regularly breached - especially in London.

"Tough measures are needed to tackle the causes of our dirty air, particularly traffic pollution.

"This must include cleaner vehicles, encouraging people to drive less through better public transport and cycling facilities, and ending plans to build more roads."