London – Britain is facing a major health emergency unless diesel cars are taken off the roads, doctors warned last night.
Fumes and toxins from diesel cars are already contributing to smog which has been linked to the deaths of 40 000 people a year.
But with the Government failing to get a grip on illegal levels of pollution in major cities that number could spiral, experts warned.
Health charities, medical leaders and environmental groups on Tuesday called for a new law to rival Anthony Eden’s Clean Air Act, which 60 years ago ended the ‘pea souper’ smogs that had blighted cities until 1956. That legislation forced an end to coal power stations in towns and cities.
On Tuesday night charities called for a modern Clean Air Act to bring pollution under control, and a scrappage scheme to encourage drivers to abandon diesel cars.
Separately, more than 300 doctors in the Doctors Against Diesel group wrote to Theresa May, calling for a diesel reduction initiative to reduce the impacts of pollutants including nitrogen dioxide and soot.
Professor John Middleton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said: "It is time for diesel to be recognised as the health emergency that it is.
"Diesel is the primary source of nitrogen dioxide in urban areas and is linked to health effects that begin before birth and extend throughout life, from childhood lung development and asthma, to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and dementia."
Ownership of diesel cars has more than trebled in the last 15 years – driven by misguided government tax incentives that identified diesel as a ‘green’ fuel. Almost 1.3 million new diesels were registered last year, 48 percent of all car purchases, according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
Evidence is growing about the health impacts of nitrogen dioxide and the tiny particles of soot emitted by diesel engines.
These toxins add to pollution from factories and power plants to create a deadly smog. But while tough industrial regulations have driven down factory emissions – these advances have barely made a difference to pollution levels because of the increasing number of diesel cars on the road. Scientists now believe a typical diesel vehicle emits ten times as much nitrogen dioxide as a petrol equivalent. The UK is notoriously bad at controlling air pollution, with 37 cities across Britain persistently breaching legal limits of air toxins set by the EU.
NHS watchdog NICE in December warned that air pollution now contributes towards 5 percent of all deaths in England, and called for a reduction in speed limits and traffic to be restricted around schools.
London is already planning to introduce an ‘emission zone’ which diesel drivers would be charged to enter, and other cities are set to follow suit. But experts are desperate to find new ways to rein in the damage done by pollution, after legal annual limits for pollution were breached in the first week of January.
Motorists in Westminster have been told they may soon be charged 50 per cent extra for on-street parking in a diesel. And Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, proposed a £3500 (R56 700) scrappage scheme to encourage drivers to switch to petrol or electric cars earlier this week.
Professor Jonathan Grigg, of Queen Mary University of London and founding member of Doctors Against Diesel, said: "There is overwhelming evidence that locally generated sooty particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide is harming children’s health.
"Cutting diesel emissions would therefore have an immediate impact on children’s personal exposure, and improve their long-term health." A Government spokesman said: "We’re committed to improving air quality and cutting harmful emissions. We’ve committed more than £2 billion since 2011 to increase the uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles, to support greener transport and set out how we’ll improve air quality."