Almost a third of Scotland’s streets have higher levels of toxic particle air pollution than they did before the Covid-19 pandemic, analysis by The Ferret can reveal.
The “appalling findings” show the levels of air pollution caused by small particles – known as particulate matter 10 (PM10) and largely due to traffic pollution – increased in 31 per cent of average readings taken this year, when compared with data from 2019.
Last year Covid-19 lockdowns caused levels of air pollution to drop across the globe. But six-month average readings of provision air quality data for March-September 2021, compiled for The Ferret by Friends of the Earth Scotland, show almost all readings have increased when compared with the same period in 2020.
In an open letter to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, published in the Herald today as part of our joint investigation, over 60 leading health professionals – including consultants, GPs and medical academics – are calling for more action to be taken on air pollution to save lives.
Councils must enforce laws, they say, air monitoring should be increased, including outside schools while the Scottish Government should invest more heavily in active travel, public transport and green infrastructure.
Meanwhile, air quality readings analysed looked at levels of two of the most common pollutants – nitrogen dioxide and PM10 – which can both have serious health implications, particularly for those with underlying health conditions. As well as triggering asthma and other respiratory conditions, air pollution has been linked to strokes, heart disease and some cancers. Air pollution is also damaging for the environment.
Provisional air quality data from 2021 suggests that Edinburgh’s Salamander Street is breaching legal PM10 limits so far this year to an even greater extent than was the case in 2019. The legal safety annual average is currently 18 microgrammes per cubic metre, and provisional six month averages were 18.9 in the busy street in Leith. Average reading for the street fell by a quarter in 2020 – down to 13.55 – when Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were in place between March and September 2020.
Meanwhile average six-month PM10 readings for 2021 in Perth’s Atholl Street hovered just below the legal limit, a rise of a third since 2019. Local campaigners said the health implications of regular spikes – often caused by heavy traffic or rises in other pollutants – must be taken seriously and plans for a low emission zone, previously ruled out by Perth and Kinross Council, be re-examined.
Levels of nitrogen dioxide – which comes mostly from exhaust fumes – fell in many of Scotland’s most polluted streets when compared with data from 2019. Councils said this showed air quality management plans were working.
Glasgow’s Hope Street was the only one still breaching legal limits in the 2021 data under this measure. The city centre street, which is busy with both buses and taxis, has been dubbed the most polluted in Scotland. Prior to 2020 it had broken legal air pollution limits for nine consecutive years. The six monthly average in 2021 was lower than in any year apart from 2020 for a decade.
Lives at risk?
But when compared with the same six month period in 2020, 94 per cent of all Scottish readings for both nitrogen dioxide and PM10 had increased in 2021. Environmental campaigners and opposition politicians said Scottish authorities had “missed opportunities” offered by Covid-19 to embed changes to tackle air pollution.
Academics and doctors said too many lives were still being put at risk. A recent study found people in Tayside’s most polluted streets were up to two thirds more likely to be admitted to hospital.
Campaigners said the Scottish Government must ensure councils do not breach legal limits, and invest yet more in public transport and active travel. Local residents should also be kept informed of high readings, they added.
Other streets with high pollution levels include Perth’s High Street, Aberdeen’s Wellington Road, Queensferry Road in Edinburgh, Seagate in Dundee, and Falkirk’s West Bridge.
Friends of the Earth Scotland transport campaigner Gavin Thomson said too many of the figures were “going in the wrong direction”.
“We know that among its negative health effects, exposure to air pollution makes people more vulnerable to Covid-19,” he added. “We are more aware than ever of the importance of protecting public health, so this is an appalling finding. After months of empty roads during the first lockdown, traffic levels are now as high as before the pandemic.”
The data, he claimed, highlighted the need to ramp up traffic reducing measures. Low emission zones have been approved in Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. But he said those in the capital, which will now only include a smaller zone than originally planned, should be far more ambitious.
“Prioritising walking, cycling and public transport would take cars off the road, improve the air we breathe and help us tackle climate change,” he added.
This July the Scottish Government published its latest Cleaner Air Strategy which said domestic and international air quality standards must be met “as a minimum”. Where “practicable and feasible” it should be reduced further, it said.
But earlier this month the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended slashing limits of nitrogen dioxide by three quarters over five years, a level which over 80 per cent of average readings in Scotland have so far exceeded this year.
Dundee University’s Professor Belch, said the negative impact on health should not be under-estimated. Research by the professor in vascular medicine has found that average daily hospital admissions in Perth and Dundee rose significantly on days of high air pollution.
Looking at data from 2000 to 2017, she found that on days when nitrogen dioxide levels were high, admissions rose by 64 per cent in Dundee and 53 per cent in Perth compared to days when readings were low. In Dundee high levels of PM10 rate led to a 12 per cent increase in hospital admissions and in Perth there was a 30 per cent increase.
“The health risks of air pollution are substantial,” she said. “Particulate matter 10 is small enough to go down into the lungs and is the second highest cause of cancer after smoking. PM2.5 not only goes into the lungs but also the bloodstream while nitrogen dioxide has an effect on the blood vessels and can be responsible for heart attack and strokes.”
“This latest data provides a worrying snapshot of Scotland’s most polluted streets, and the Scottish Government must work with councils to urgently address this before it gets worse,” she added.
A Scottish Government spokesperson claimed improving air quality – and health of both people and planet – was “an urgent priority for this government”.
“Earlier this year, we published our updated air quality strategy, setting out how Scotland can achieve the best air quality in Europe,” they said, citing commitments to reduce vehicle kilometres and almost tripling investment in active travel to £320m.
What did the councils say?
Glasgow City Council: “Whilst early evidence from 2021 shows air pollution levels in Hope Street are higher than last year, this should be considered in the context of the unprecedented circumstances that prevailed for much of 2020 due to the pandemic. Looking further back, the levels appear to be much reduced from the five year average at this location, indicating that the progression of the first phase of the Low Emission Zone (LEZ) is having a positive impact.”
City of Edinburgh Council: Councillor Lesley Macinnes, transport and environment convener, said air quality was "integral" to ten year city mobility plans. “As part of this we’re planning to introduce a Low Emission Zone next year which will not only tackle air pollution in the densely populated centre but will have a knock-on effect across Edinburgh,” she added. “It’s encouraging that, as we lead up to this, emissions standards across taxis, fleets and public transport are already improving.
“We know that there are still areas in need of further improvement – we’re in the process of reviewing our citywide approach. At Salamander Street it is recognised that there is likely to have been local factors influencing figures this year, like construction sites, which can create temporary increases in PMs.”
Perth and Kinross Council: “We are committed to meeting our statutory duty to maintain and improve air quality for the health and wellbeing of our residents. A Screening Appraisal completed in 2019/20 found that...a Low Emission Zone was not required. This was verified by Sepa and the Scottish Government. The Cross Tay Link Road will significantly reduce traffic and pollution in Perth once it opens as motorists will be able to avoid travelling through the city centre."
‘I avoid walking down main roads’
Olivia Fulton was diagnosed with asthma when she was just four years old, but following a bout of pneumonia when she was 18, her already serious condition became even harder to control. Now 35, she estimates that she is admitted to hospital about three or four times a year, often to critical care, and has had to stop working as a nurse due to her health.
She now volunteers on patient involvement research projects as well as campaigning work. Air pollution is just one of a number of triggers, but it’s an important one which she tracks on her phone via an app. It also allows her to monitor her lung function.
“During lockdown I went back to live with my parents in Loch Tay and I noticed my lung function was much more stable,” she said. “But after a three day stay in London I noticed a 25 per cent drop in lung function. It took five days to get back up to normal.
“In Edinburgh I try to avoid walking along main roads, or standing at bus stops where I’ll be exposed to pollution. If I’m forced to walk down somewhere like St John’s Road when it’s busy, afterwards it’s like having a tight band around my chest, and I get puffed out easily.”
While she’d like to live rurally, her life threatening condition means she has to live close to a major hospital. She adds: “I’d love for people to be more aware of air pollution – to know that yes it’s traffic, and it's industry but it’s also things like wood burners, which are increasingly problematic.
“The authorities have been going on about the need to tackle air pollution for as long as I can remember and the only time it improved was during lockdown. Now we need people to really get behind the need for change and start working together.”
Picture credit: Angela Catlin
How Green is Scotland? is a week-long series for The Herald by The Ferret, an award-winning investigative journalism platform in Scotland. It is an editorially independent, not for profit co-operative run by its journalists and members.
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