Government "Complacent" About "Dangerous" Air Pollution Levels

Submitted by edg on Tue, 27 Dec '11 9.33am

WWF Scotland has accused the Scottish government of taking a "complacent" approach to "dangerous" levels of air pollution in Scottish cities, caused mostly by motorised traffic.

According to an analysis of provisional government statistics for the past year, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in parts of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth are all in breach of EU health targets.

“It is totally unacceptable that Scotland has breached European air pollution targets for the second year in a row. As a result of a complacent approach thousands of people are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution in Scotland’s major cities," Dr Dan Barlow, Head of Policy at WWF Scotland, said in a statement.

A closer look at the Scottish air pollution statistics reveals that St John's Road in Corstorphine continues to see the highest levels of pollution among the five air quality monitors in Edinburgh (no surprise there, perhaps).

The "safe" annual NO2 mean limit is 40 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3). St John Road's annual hourly mean was 65ug/m3. There were 52 instances where it exceeded 200ug/m3 for more than 18 hours.

I compiled a chart from the annual air quality statistics for the last five years for St John's Road which I've posted below. Although 2011 statistics are still provisional, you can see levels of NO2 pollution is far above the target level. 

St John's Rd (ug/m3) 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Annual Hourly Mean 84 75 70 71 65
Max Daily Mean 176 171 160 138 169
Max Hourly Mean 304 338 313 275 308

nitrogen dioxide levels

Some of this traffic-caused pollution will hopefully be reduced by the tram's expected arrival in 2014.

I have also drawn up another chart consolidating the government's annual air quality statistics for the New Town monitor in Queen Street / Wemyss Place which is the closest to the residential areas being impacted by diverted tram traffic and the most central of the five pollution monitors.

Although the annual hourly mean is below the target 40 ug/m3 of NO2, during work hours the NO2 regularly spikes up way beyond this to as much as the 100ug/m3 mark. You can see these spikes under "graphing" on the air quality web site.

Queen Street NO2 (ug/m3) 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Annual Hourly Mean 34 32 33 37 28
Max Daily Mean 105 100 94 112 69
Max Hourly Mean 176 178 187 172 118

On Queensferry Road, in half of the 8 months of air quality data collected the 40ug/m3 threshold was breached.

NO2 and Asthma

A previous blog about the impact of displaced traffic from the trams went into the health issues of high levels of nitrogen dioxide in urban environments.

Reducing traffic in cities is a nettle that governments have yet to grasp. The WWF's Barlow argues the government has simply not got its priorities right, in particular continuing with more road-building projects while slashing funding for public transport, cycling and walking.

“Scotland has had plenty of time to take preventative action, so it is shocking that we have failed to put in place the measures needed to meet air quality targets and protect human health. This situation is a direct result of the failure of successive governments to produce a sensible strategy that adequately addresses air pollution and climate emissions from road traffic."

“At the same time that Scotland is suggesting it may not meet air quality targets until 2020, Government investment and infrastructure plans are set to prioritise road building over public transport improvements and cut funding for walking and cycling. Improving air quality and tackling climate emissions requires a shift in government transport spending plans to place much more emphasis on sustainable solutions.”

Planning by numbers

The other thing is how much stock can we put in five air quality monitors for a whole city? Some of these invisible pollutants probably pool in some places more than others, perhaps because of the low elevation or enclosed layout of residences - the "urban canyon" effect.

It'd be interesting to hear from anyone who has been doing their own monitoring what is turning up in Edinburgh's air.