Pollutionwatch: what's not to like about low emissions zones?

Gary Fuller
Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Bristol is the latest city to propose a clean air or low emissions zone. These improve air quality by excluding the most polluting vehicles. Good news for the health of 100,000 people who live in the centre of Bristol – but not everyone is happy.

One common objection is that zones only accelerate changes that would happen anyway as old vehicles wear out and are replaced. However, poor air is estimated to cause a health burden of more than 200 early deaths each year in Bristol, 9,600 in London and 32,000 UK-wide.

Air pollution has been described as the ‘new tobacco’ by the head of the World Health Organization. Over 90% of the world’s population suffers toxic air and research is increasingly revealing the profound impacts on the health of people, especially children.

Children and babies’ developing bodies are most at risk from toxic air, with 300 million living in places where toxic fumes are six times above the international guidelines. 

A comprehensive global review found that air pollution may be damaging every organ and virtually every cell in the human body. It causes issues from heart and lung disease to diabetes and dementia, and from liver problems and bladder cancer to brittle bones and damaged skin. The systemic damage is the result of pollutants causing inflammation that then floods through the body, and from ultrafine particles being carried around the body by the bloodstream. A Canadian study recently linked air pollution nanoparticles to brain cancer for first time

In the UK, while deaths attributed to air pollution have halved in the last four decades, most urban areas have illegal levels of air pollution. One in 20 deaths in the UK is still attributable to small particle pollution alone.

Damian Carrington, Environment editor

A study in London suggests that children in the most polluted areas are growing smaller lungs, a change that is not fully recoverable. Balanced against these impacts, we cannot justify delay.

Early analysis of London’s ultra-low emission zone showed a decrease of 29% in nitrogen dioxide from traffic alongside major roads. Changes in outer London, well away from the zone, were used to estimate what would have happened without the scheme – just 7% decrease.

Others worry that polluting vehicles will divert, moving the problem. However, studies from Germany and London show the opposite. The cleaner vehicles required in these zones also drive in the surrounding area, spreading the benefit.