Action urged on 'invisible killer'
A ban on building schools, hospitals and care homes next to air pollution hotspots must be introduced to help cut the tens of thousands of deaths estimated to have been caused by the "invisible killer", MPs have said.
More than 1,000 schools must also be fitted with air filtration systems to protect children from deadly traffic fumes, the Environmental Audit Committee recommended.
It warned that youngsters face lung damage as a result of the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) that is a by-product of motor engines and suggested that pollutants could also cause infant death.
The committee lashed out at the Government for failing to act on previous recommendations and claimed that a generation was at risk of having its health "seriously impaired" by air pollution.
Joan Walley, who chairs the committee, said: "It is unacceptable that another generation of young people growing up in our towns and cities could have their health seriously impaired by illegal air pollution before the Government brings this public health crisis under control.
"Children growing up near busy roads with high NO2 and particle emissions have stunted and impaired lung development.
"There is also emerging evidence that air pollution can increase infant mortality rates, prompt pre-term births and affect cognitive performance.
"Well over a thousand schools around the country are 150 metres away from major roads.
"Protecting children and vulnerable people in the worst-affected areas must be made a priority by Government and local authorities.
"Ministers must pluck up the political courage to take the potentially unpopular decisions necessary to get the most polluting vehicles off the road and encourage more people to walk, cycle or take public transport.
"New figures suggest air pollution from heavy traffic could be killing almost the same amount of people as smoking in the UK, yet the Government seems unwilling to put saving lives before economic growth."
The Action on Air Quality report called for the introduction of more low emission zones and for Vehicle Excise Duty to take into account NO2 as well as carbon levels.
Ministers should look at financial incentives for more environmentally-friendly vehicles, including gas-fuelled cars, the MPs said.
National planning guidelines should "make it impossible" to build new schools, care homes or health centres near existing air pollution hotspots and redevelopment of existing buildings should only be approved if pollution exposure is reduced, they added.
The report also recommended updating building regulations to require existing schools near major roads to be fitted with air filtration systems.
Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said: "Exposure to certain air pollutants can have a devastating impact on people with heart conditions, increasing their risk of a heart attack.
"Yet the UK continues to flout legal air pollution limits.
"The Government cannot continue to ignore this issue. We knew that air pollution was harmful to our hearts in 2011 when the last report came out. Now the evidence is even stronger.
"Enough is enough. The Government must act on these recommendations quickly if we are to improve the quality of the air we breathe and protect the nation's heart health."
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said: "Clean air is vital for people's health, and while air quality has improved significantly in recent decades, we are investing heavily in measures across government to continue this, committing £2 billion since 2011 in green transport initiatives.
"We continue to support local authorities in identifying the best solutions for their area and sharing best practice.
"Government further supports these efforts through our air quality grant scheme. We will be responding to the report fully in due course."
Philip Insall, director of health for transport charity Sustrans, said: "Fitting air filtration systems to classrooms is an expensive sticking plaster solution that doesn't address the source of the problem: air pollution caused by motor traffic.
"As the committee says, walking and cycling is the ultimate low emission option for local transport."
He went on: "Improved air quality and road safety, and the potential to reduce obesity and tackle climate change are just a few of the benefits to be reaped from people having the freedom to leave the car at home.'
"The priority must be for guaranteed, long-term investment, to help more people make every day journeys by walking and cycling, saving both money and lives."
Sian Berry, roads and sustainable transport campaigner for the Campaign for Better Transport, said: "Roads ministers need to respond urgently to the recommendations of the committee and amend the Infrastructure Bill to meet their legal obligations to reduce air pollution as soon as possible.
"They can no longer simply brush aside the effects of their road-building plans on the desperately bad air pollution we already suffer in our towns and cities."
She went on: "We know that new and wider roads create new traffic, and the Government's plans risk thousands of new trips being generated that spill out into our towns and make existing air pollution much, much worse.
"The new Strategic Highways Company was tasked last week with building more than a thousand new lane miles of main roads and motorways, and yet the Infrastructure Bill currently allows the company to do this with very little regard to the consequences for air pollution and the health of people living in the towns and cities surrounding these roads.
"The recommendation that a legal duty to protect air quality should be included as a specific clause in the Bill is therefore extremely welcome and an amendment should be drafted immediately."
Barry Gardiner, shadow minister for the natural environment, said: "Air pollution is a public health crisis that contributes to the deaths of tens of thousands of people each year and yet this Tory-led Government has failed to tackle the problem.
"The committee's report is a thorough and comprehensive assessment of Government inaction on air pollution and it fully backs Labour's commitment to deliver a national framework for low emissions zones."
A group of 24 MPs and Lords, including Labour MP Jack McDonnell have written a letter to the committee calling for an urgent independent inquiry.
Mr McDonnell said: "This is a major breakthrough for the campaign for a public inquiry into air pollution. People are dying in large numbers every year and yet existing policies to tackle air pollution are having no effect. We urgently need an inquiry into how we can tackle the mounting air pollution crisis."
British Cycling's policy adviser, Olympic medallist Chris Boardman, said: "Over 29,000 people die prematurely each year due to air pollution so we need to make our towns and cities healthier places for our children to grow up in.
"Making walking and cycling easier by providing better infrastructure would save hundreds of lives a year and create better places to live."