Exeter, Devon UK • Sep 23, 2023 • VOL XII
Exeter, Devon UK • Sep 23, 2023 • VOL XII
Home Science London breaks annual pollution limit – in just over a week

London breaks annual pollution limit – in just over a week

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  • Breathtakingly early breach goes some way to explain why air pollution causes tens of thousands of premature deaths every year in the UK
  • Exeter has also recorded high levels of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide this year

A road in Wandsworth has broken nitrogen dioxide limits 19 times in the first 8 days of 2016.  The EU allows the hourly limit to be broken 18 times a year, meaning London has already breached European air pollution rules. These state an hourly average maximum of 200 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide, and a yearly average of 40 micrograms.

Exeter roadside monitors have also recorded high levels of nitrogen dioxide this New Year. On January 8th we experienced an average of 66 micrograms and a peak of 128 micrograms, as shown by Defra’s data selector tool. If verified, these would be the highest levels recorded since 23rd September 2015.


Councillors will be hoping these figures aren’t predictive of 2016 as a whole, which would see the city breaking EU limits. Last year the council approved a 3 year low emissions strategy. Actions will focus on staff transport, business freight deliveries, taxi companies and sustainable travel choices such as cycling. Exeter City Council says: “Generally, air quality in Exeter is good. But, there are some parts of the city where nitrogen dioxide levels are above government objective levels.”

Nitrogen dioxide, also known by its chemical formula NO2, is formed as a by-product in diesel engines. A third of cars on British roads are now diesel-powered. Nitrogen dioxide is no stranger to news scandal: last year it became apparent that the car manufacturer Volkswagen had managed to cheat on NO2 tests, affecting 1.2 million cars in the UK. VW bosses are next week sitting before an MP committee on diesel pollution to be quizzed on how they are cleaning up their technology.

NO2 irritates the lungs, causing potential breathing difficulties in vulnerable people including the young, the elderly and asthmatics.  It has also been linked to heart issues, and plays a role in producing smog.

The 19th exceedance on Putney High Street occurred just three days before Wandsworth Borough Council enforce a new ban on vans, lorries and HGVs making daytime deliveries along the road. The Council came runner-up in the 2015 National Air Quality Awards for their work to improve air traffic emissions in Putney.

Alan Andrews is a Clean Air lawyer for ClientEarth, an NGO combatting environmental injustice. The Supreme Court last year ruled in favour of ClientEarth. It ordered the Government to draw up a plan to meet EU rules on nitrogen dioxide emissions.  Andrews described the plans as falling “well short”.

Last week he commented: “This is exactly why we are taking the Government back to court.  Its failure to deal with illegal levels of air pollution, which causes thousands of early deaths in London every year, is a scandal.”

Last July Boris Johnson revealed that nitrogen dioxide emissions cause over 5000 early deaths a year in London alone.  As Andrews pointed out at the time, “For every person who dies early from air pollution, many more are made seriously ill, have to visit hospital or take time off work.”

2014 research by King’s College London suggested that Oxford Street has the world’s highest levels of nitrogen dioxide. Its peak exceeded the safe limit by a factor of 11. Last year, the renowned shopping street breached the yearly EU exceedance limit in just 2 days, and went on to break the hourly limit a thousand times. However this year Oxford Street’s monitor was reported to have malfunctioned on January 3rd.

Both of the mayoral candidates for London, Sadiq Khan (Labour) and Zac Goldsmith (Conservative) pledged to tackle the problem. Despite the alarming health concerns, documents seen by The Guardian in December reveal that the British Government is pushing for pollution limits to be weakened.

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