Simon Birkett, Founder and Director of campaign group Clean Air in London, does not mince his words in his campaign for action to stem the death toll from air pollution.
"The Government is misleading the public, cheating on legal standards and covering-up the biggest public health risk after smoking and perhaps chronic dietary problems.”
“The last time the Government issued a press release warning of smog was April 2011 and it made front page news,” he tells Central Lobby. “They did not enjoy the experience and so have not put one out since.”
The worst ozone smog in London for six years hit the capital two days before the opening ceremony of the Olympics, yet there was no Whitehall warning.
“The Government wants to keep this issue out of the public eye and for everyone to think the problem has been solved,” says Birkett.
“They are brushing this under the carpet.”
More than that, Clean Air in London says the Government is lobbying to weaken the existing legal requirements.
The European Commission has announced that 2013 is the ‘Year of Air’ with key European air pollution legislation up for review.
The UK Government will use the review to seek amendments to the Air Quality Directive which reduce the infraction risk faced by most Member States, especially in relation to nitrogen dioxide provisions.
Birkett says the Year of Air, which was launched this week, involves the Commission as a whole.
“This is not just the environment directorate, there will be a whole raft of things happening.
“I expect several things this year, including big efforts to build public understanding of the dangers of air pollution - the known impacts have risen much faster than pollution has come down.
“As well as new legislation on the sources of harmful emissions, for example diesel vehicles and wood and fossil fuel burning in cities, I am expecting enforcement of existing laws to be cranked up.”
5.6% of all deaths in England were attributable to long-term exposure to 'man-made' air pollution in 2010 alone.
In London, the figure for local authorities varied between 6.3% in Bromley and Havering to 8.3% in Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster and 9.0% in the City of London.
The Department of Health is due to publish estimates for the number of deaths attributable to long-term exposure to dangerous airborne particles and the years of life lost for every local authority in England by April.
Birkett became involved lobbying against air pollution through his work on another traffic issue in the capital.
“I originally was fighting rat running on local streets and during that process I stumbled on the fact that air pollution is off the scale in London,” he explains.
“I found out that there are very powerful laws in place to ensure compliance, and about the health effects.
“That inspired me to do something about it.”
Birkett says there has been no significant improvement in air quality concentrations over the last 10 years.
The nitrogen dioxide levels in London are the worst of any EU capital, and particle levels are also higher than most places.
“There have been legal standards since 1999 on particles and gases to be met by 2005 and 2010 respectively,” he explains.
“The Government got an extension to 2011 for particles.
"For nitrogen dioxide there are still only eight out of 43 zones in the whole UK which comply with the legal standards.
“For 16 zones the Government said it won’t comply until 2020, and London won’t comply until 2025.
“Since the coalition Government took over there hasn’t been one single significant committed new measure to tackle air pollution.”
The Mayor of London has also delayed a key element of the London Low Emission Zone.
“Even now it (the zone) is two steps and two years behind the one in Berlin,” says Birkett.
“Germany has nearly 50 low emission zones and the UK has one big, weak one.
“We need to also be cleaning up the diesel vehicles we have got by fitting filters and reducing harmful emissions from buildings.
“The scientific evidence is showing we need to tighten the laws.
“Clean Air in London is saying we need continuity and the further tightening of health and legal protections.”
The European Commission is holding a public consultation about the future of air pollution, including legislation.
“It is a wonderful opportunity for MPs to promote this issue to their constituents,” says Birkett.
“But it is not just about legislation, the Government must start issuing smog warnings and ban the oldest diesel vehicles of all sorts, which the World Health Organisation says produce carcinogenic exhaust.
“In the coalition agreement is a pledge to be ‘working towards full compliance with EU standards for air quality’ and that has been the most hopeless sham because the UK has the biggest breaches of any of the member states.
“We have to address a public health catastrophe and give MPs the information to demand action.
“Clean Air in London is calling on the European Commission to launch infraction action against the UK for breaching the nitrogen dioxide laws by such a wide margin and for failing on the particle laws.
“We need them to take action because the UK courts have said it is not for them to impose these limits - they say the commission must act.
“There are no other public health laws breached on such a wide scale.”
Parliamentarians and members of the public can contribute to the Commission’s consultation here: http://ec.europa.eu/yourvoice/ipm/forms/dispatch?form=TSAPforGP