Air pollution kills more than 60 people a year in Ipswich but could new court ruling help campaigners fight this hidden killer?
A recent ruling by top UK justices has given new impetus to a battle in Suffolk against a ‘hidden killer’, as John Grant reports.
It’s hardly overstating the effect of a recent Supreme Court ruling to say that it has come as a breath of fresh air to a group of Suffolk campaigners – it has given them renewed vigour in a struggle against pollution that has lasted for years.
They have battled long and hard against the curse of what they see as the “hidden killer” in Ipswich and are now hoping that the landmark court decision will lead to improvements in air quality in a town they say is a “pollution pocket”.
They point to Government figures for 2010 – thought to be the most recent available – that show that Public Health England estimates that 63 deaths in people aged over 25 would be attributable to air pollution in the borough of Ipswich, and 693 “associated life years” across the borough’s population would be lost due to diverse impacts on public health.
Although the campaigners are primarily concerned with Ipswich, the figures for Suffolk local authority areas are topped by Suffolk Coastal, with 71 and 651 respectively and Waveney’s corresponding figures are 66 and 648.
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The overall figures for Suffolk are given as 366 deaths and 3,577 lost life-years – figures the Ipswich campaigners say are cause for concern, and cause for action.
Their campaign has been reinvigorated by last month’s decision by Supreme Court justices to order the UK Government to produce new plans for the reduction of air pollution levels. The justices ordered that air quality proposals to comply with European Union law on limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air must be submitted to the European Commission “no later” than December 31.
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The ruling was the culmination of a five-year legal battle by environmental group ClientEarth over failings by the UK to comply with parts of Europe’s Air Quality Directive that protects public health.
Announcing the unanimous decision of a panel of five Supreme Court judges, headed by the court’s president Lord Neuberger, Lord Carnwath said the “only realistic” way to achieve the “immediate action” that was necessary was to impose a mandatory order on the UK’s new government.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said work was already under way to form revised plans to meet EU targets on NO2 as soon as possible. Meeting such targets was a “common challenge across Europe” with 17 member states exceeding limits, it said. In the UK, average roadside concentrations of NO2 had fallen by 15% since 2010 and both emissions and background concentrations had more than halved in the 20 years from 1992 to 2012.
The UK was compliant with EU legislation for “nearly all air pollutants” but still faced a “significant challenge” in meeting NO2 limits. It added that the main reason breaches were so prevalent across Europe was that emission standards for diesel cars had “failed to deliver expected reductions in NO2 in real life situations” and the UK was “pushing for action to address this as early as possible.”
Many groups and environmental organisations – professional and voluntary – are pushing for action on the whole issue of air pollution nationally and locally across the UK, with Ipswich campaigners adding a strong voice to calls for a renewed emphasis to be placed on air quality by the Government – and local authorities – in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.
Campaigner Charles Croydon, of the town’s St Margaret’s Church environment group and the Ipswich Green Drinks group, said he wanted Ipswich Borough Council to go beyond its current legal requirements and invest in new monitoring equipment that would detect the tiniest particles of pollutants, known as PM2.5s because they are less than 2.5microns across.
“A new plan has to be drawn up after the Supreme Court case and I would like to see local authorities waking up,” he said.
“Local authorities have to make resource decisions, we understand that, and the fundamental problem is that the UK Government is wrong and that has been backed by the verdict in the action taken in the Supreme Court.
“It is the Government that now has to really set the pattern.
“I would hope that new standards would be set and a clear pathway would emerge towards compliance, especially in relation to diesel emissions. There are World Health Organisation (WHO) standards and there are EU standards. The WHO standards are higher so I would like to see our standards brought in line with them.
“I would also hope that there would be an increase in sustainable transport and that better information on air pollution would be made available to the public.
“People can take their own action too. Even if they went for walks or runs in their local park instead of along roads, or drivers turning their engines off when waiting in traffic queues – that would help protect public health.”
Fellow campaigner Barbara Robinson, of the Save Our Country Spaces movement and the charity Stepping Stones for Biodiversity, said the topography of Ipswich “makes it a basin for pollution.”
“The town has lost much of its manufacturing but that’s been replaced by traffic and so the problems get worse,” she said.
“The local authority officers have been very good and we have a Suffolk-wide Air Quality Management document – a ‘developers’ charter’ – that has been adopted with all the information being available to guide sustainable and safe development, but that doesn’t seem to be adequately brought to the table and we don’t seem to be going in the right direction. The problems still exist.”
Mrs Robinson, of Tuddenham St Martin, near Ipswich, said any proposals for the expansion of the town should be accompanied by public health impact assessments, which covered the likely effects of air pollution on the public’s health.
“Air pollution is very damaging - it has a wide range of health impacts - and yet it is mostly unseen, unless we have certain weather conditions when our own pollution and pollution from the Continent can be very apparent.
“It is the hidden killer,” she said.
Ipswich seeing ‘downward trend’ in nitrogen dioxide levels
Ipswich Borough Council said it appeared that the town was experiencing a “general downward trend” in nitrogen oxide levels, with none of its areas exceeding EU limits.
In a statement made in response to the campaigners’ comments, the council said: “With regard to the ClientEarth’s case against the Government over the UK’s failure to meet EU nitrogen dioxide limits, a Defra officer has now confirmed that ‘no part of Ipswich is in breach of the limits’.
“We do, however, sit in the Eastern Zone, which has areas of exceedance, but we are unable to confirm where these are.
“Although the results are still being considered, it appears that there is a general downward trend of nitrogen dioxide levels in Ipswich (with the odd exception) according to the latest 2014 monitoring results.
“With regard to particulates, screening work carried out by Ipswich Borough Council has indicated that there are no areas of exceedance of the PM10 objective level.
“Monitoring was carried out during 2009/2010 at a site on Star Lane, which is heavily trafficked. The results were well below the objective levels for 24-hour and annual PM10.
“Monitoring was also carried out at a site at Cliff Lane Primary School, and again the levels were low.
“The screening of particulates has been carried out and reported to, and approved by, Defra on a regular basis through the production of the yearly air quality reports, considering all areas of Ipswich.
“The reports are produced following instruction and guidance from Defra to ensure thoroughness and these can all be found on the council website.
“The council has no obligation to assess levels of PM2.5 at the present time.
“With regard to planning applications, the planning department consults environmental protection on any application where there may be an air quality impact.
“Air quality reports are requested where appropriate and the results taken into consideration during the decision process.”
Health and environment groups unite to deliver action call to Government
The environmental group ClientEarth, whose recent Supreme Court victory has forced the Government to step up its action on air pollution to meet European legislation, is one of 13 organisations that united last year to highlight the issue.
Among the wide-ranging groups that came together to issue a “Healthy Air Campaign policy call” were the British Heart Foundation, the UK Health Forum, the British Lung Foundation and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
They released a document in November that said: “Air pollution is one of the most serious public health risks facing us today, contributing to the earlier deaths of up to 200,000 people in the UK each year.
“Action is required at all levels. Air pollution does not respect national borders and so we must work with our European neighbours. National action is also vital and central government must face up to its responsibilities.
“There is no single solution –we need a cross-government approach which tackles the sources of air pollution while maximising the co-benefits for physical activity, health inequalities, congestion and climate change.
“Carcinogenic diesel is the biggest culprit and we need an urgent policy shift to reverse the ‘dieselification’ of the fleet and incentivise cleaner fuels and technologies.
“However, technology alone will not be enough. We also need:
• Reduced levels of motor traffic overall
• a steep increase in the levels of walking and cycling
• to properly warn the public of the risks and how to reduce their exposure, with particular emphasis on vulnerable groups.”
The “policy call” also urged the Government to take a series of “urgent steps to protect our right to breathe clean air.”
It wanted support for a “more ambitious EU air package which delivers real improvements in urban air quality through strict national emissions targets.”
A “cross-government national air quality strategy” should be developed and delivered, and stricter national air quality objectives, which align with WHO guidelines, should be set for 2030.
The Government should “drive a dramatic decrease in the use of diesel, through a range of measures including a national network of low-emission zones, and taxation changes.”
Measures to increase sustainable transport, which would reduce overall levels of motor traffic, should be committed to, the policy call said.
In addition, the organisations said the Government should “provide better public information on air pollution, including a comprehensive warning system for pollution episodes and clinical advice.”