Busy streets in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee are being polluted by exhaust fumes in breach of legal safety limits introduced in 2010, according to the latest government monitoring.

Seven city centre roads recorded toxic levels of gases and particles from traffic in 2018, damaging health and increasing risks of cancer, strokes and heart attacks. Five of them have breached air pollution limits for each of the last seven years.

The worst polluted place was at the kerbside on Hope Street in Glasgow, where the mean annual concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the air was 60 micrograms per cubic metre in 2018. The European Union safety limit which came into force nine years ago is 40.


Other streets polluted in breach of the safety limit for nitrogen dioxide were Queensferry Road, St John’s Road and Nicolson Street in Edinburgh, as well as Seagate and Lochee Road in Dundee.

For tiny sooty particles known as PM10s, the Scottish Government set an annual limit of 18 micrograms per cubic metre in 2010. This was exceeded in 2018 on Salamander Street and Queensferry Road in Edinburgh.

Scotland's most polluted streets

StreetNitrogen dioxideTiny particlesAnnual breaches since 2012
Hope Street, Glasgow60not measuredseven
Queensferry Road, Edinburgh5124seven
Nicolson Street, Edinburgh49not measurednot measured
St John’s Road, Edinburgh4613seven
Salamander Street, Edinburgh2421seven
Seagate, Dundee4316seven
Lochee Road, Dundee4213six
Chapelhall, North Lanarkshire3910one
Wellington Road, Aberdeen3917five
Market Street, Aberdeen3217four
Values for nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles (PM10s) are annual means for 2018 in micrograms per cubic metre. The annual European safety limit for nitrogen dioxide is 40 and the annual Scottish limit for particles is 18. Both were meant to have been met in 2010.
Source: Friends of the Earth Scotland and www.scottishairquality.scot

Experts and campaigners have criticised councils and ministers for failing to do enough to cut air pollution, which is blamed for 2,500 premature deaths every year in Scotland. They are pressing for the urgent introduction of low emission zones to force vehicles to clean up their exhaust emissions.

The Scottish Government accepted there were “a few hotspots of poorer air quality” but said it was working “to address this as soon as possible”. Local authorities highlighted the multiple efforts they were making to improve air quality in their areas.

Friends of the Earth Scotland, which analysed the official air quality data published online, described the breaches as shocking. “The air pollution health crisis isn’t going away – in many areas it’s getting worse,” said the environmental group’s campaigner, Gavin Thomson.

“With streets in Scotland’s cities still at illegal levels of air pollution, the Scottish Government’s Cleaner Air for Scotland strategy has clearly failed to deliver. The current review of this strategy needs to result in a transformation in transport if we are to make Scotland’s air safe for people.”

Thomson described Glasgow’s plan for a low emission zone as “hugely disappointing” because it only impacted a small number of buses to start with. “It will make no difference in its first year,” he claimed.

The health evidence on the impact of air pollution is overwhelming - we need to act now. Gavin Thomson, Friends of the Earth Scotland

He called on Aberdeen, Dundee, and Edinburgh to have low emission zones in place by 2020. “The health evidence on the impact of air pollution is overwhelming – we need to act now,” he added.

“Air pollution has been linked with heart attacks, strokes, and cancers. Vulnerable groups such as the young, the elderly and those already suffering ill health are at particular risk.”

Scotland should make its cities healthier, happier and more prosperous places, Thomson argued. “By giving more people the freedom to walk and cycle safely, as well the option of good quality public transport, we can end the stranglehold of cars on our towns and cities.”

Professor James Curran, an air pollution expert and honorary fellow of the umbrella group, Scottish Environment Link, pointed out that the UK approach to tackling air pollution had been condemned as “shambolic”. There were already 200 low emission zones elsewhere in Europe.

He said: “There is an increasing litany of harmful effects of air pollution: low birth weight, asthma, heart disease, obesity, strokes, Type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, and dementia. Europe has recently designated diesel fumes as a carcinogen.”

But all the incentives seemed to be going in the wrong direction, Curran argued. “The real cost of private motoring has reduced 20 per cent since 1980 while the real cost of travelling by train or bus has increased by 60 per cent.”

“We’ve had plenty of time to get on with protecting people from these risks,” he added. “Now is the time for ambition and determination to make our towns and cities better places to live, and to do it quickly.”

Curran was a member of a governance group advising Scottish ministers on their cleaner air strategy from 2016 to 2018. He resigned “due to the frustratingly slow rate of progress”, including Glasgow’s “unambitious” low emission zone plans.

There is no safe level of air pollution. Fintan Hurley, Institute of Occupational Medicine

According to Fintan Hurley, a former government air pollution advisor and honorary scientist at the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, simply meeting the safety limits would not solve the problem. “Breaches of current standards are really the tip of the iceberg,” he told The Ferret.

“There is no safe level of air pollution, and most of the deaths and ill-health that it causes in Scotland would happen even if air quality standards were met. That’s not being defeatist, it is recognising how things are.”

He argued that the need to cut air pollution went hand-in-hand with the need for “big changes” to tackle climate chaos. “Many of the same changes will give us cleaner air – I think our best chance is to plan and organise and campaign for both of these together.”

Revealed: the ten most polluted streets in Scotland

The Scottish Government has embarked upon an independent review of its 2015 cleaner air strategy. “We are committed to improving air quality across the country and have seen significant reductions in pollution emissions over recent decades,” said Environment Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham.

“We recognise that a few hotspots of poorer air quality remain in some Scottish cities and towns, and are working with local authorities and other partners to address this as soon as possible.”

Cunningham pointed out that £2.5 million had been made available annually to local authorities, and over £10 million provided in 2018 to help establish low emission zones. “We also spend over £1 billion a year on public transport and doubled the active travel budget in 2018 to support sustainable travel options,” she added.

“Compared to the rest of the UK and other parts of Europe, Scotland enjoys a high level of air quality and we have set more stringent air quality targets.”

Compared to the rest of the UK and other parts of Europe, Scotland enjoys a high level of air quality. Roseanna Cunningham, Scottish Government

Glasgow City Council pointed out that the “vast majority” of the city met air quality standards. “The figures for Hope Street have to be treated with caution as they relate to as yet unratified data,” said a council spokesman.

“City centre air quality is improving but there are still certain areas where further progress is required. Our ground-breaking low emission zone will see all city centre vehicles having to meet strict emission standards by the end of 2022.”

The council’s “phased approach” was already seeing more cleaner buses, he stated. “By the end of 2019 this will lead to the removal of around 32 tonnes of nitrogen oxides from city centre annual emissions.”

The City of Edinburgh Council insisted that improving air quality was a priority. “We absolutely share Friends of the Earth Scotland’s concerns around the impact pollution can have on people’s health, and we’re constantly working on ways to minimise this,” said transport convener, Lesley Macinnes.

“As a result I’m pleased to see long term trends showing concentrations for both nitrogen dioxide and particles going down. Of course pockets of poorer air quality exist – predominately due to road traffic.”

According to Macinnes, the council was promoting cleaner, sustainable transport via active travel or bus, tram or electric vehicles. “The city centre transformation project will improve conditions for people to walk and cycle and use the car less, and our work towards a low emission zone continues apace.”

Dundee City Council also stressed its determination to improve air quality. “Vehicle emissions are bad for people and the environment and the council is working with partners on a raft of measures to ensure they are reduced in our city,” said the convener of the community safety committee, Alan Ross.

“We have set up a low emission zone delivery group which has been awarded £200k from the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland to develop a traffic model and a further £140k to provide consultancy support and additional regional modelling.”

Ross also argued that council had “ambitious and brave” plans to boost cycling and walking. “We want to restore the balance of these streets in favour of people rather than traffic which will make them safer, more convenient and improve air quality,” he said.

No streets in Aberdeen recorded breaches in air pollution safety limits in 2018, though concentrations of pollutants were significant. Aberdeen City Council pointed out, however, that levels had been reducing in recent years and argued they should fall further when the new city by-pass is fully open.

“We are working with the Scottish Government on understanding the need for a low emission zone in Aberdeen and it is only one of a range of traffic management tools that we are investigating to improve air quality,” said a council spokeswoman.

“Aberdeen City Council takes the health of its communities and visitors seriously and will continue to work towards a healthier environment for all.”

People on pollution

Stephani Mok walks, runs and cycles in and around Glasgow city centre. “I’m disgusted by the amount of noxious fumes I have to breath in, especially from solo motorists,” she said.

“When I learnt about the dangerous levels of air pollution on Hope Street, it makes me so angry and sickened – angry because I think it’s a lack of political will that makes it possible. I’m really hoping that we’ll see big changes so that we can all breath cleaner air.”

Chris Young lives in Corstorphine in Edinburgh. “In my area, many residents are deeply concerned about health impacts from air pollution around our main roads,” he said.

“Knowing the danger it poses to my family’s health, it’s clear we need serious joined up policy and action across the whole city to properly address urban air pollution. I find it most frustrating that so little appears to be getting done to prevent it.”

Andrew Llanwarne co-ordinates a Friends of the Earth group on Tayside. “Dundee has some of the most polluted streets in the country,” he said.

“The people of Dundee are still breathing poisonous air on their way to school, or work, or the shops, and this contributes to the early deaths of approximately 75 people in the city each year.”

Rachel Martin cycles in Aberdeen. “My family must be exposed to high levels of air pollution, no matter where in the city we go,” she said.

“Anyone who lives in Aberdeen, or spends any time here, has to be concerned about this. We can all contribute to cleaner air by walking and cycling more instead of taking the car – but we need to be supported by the council.”

This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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