Air pollution from exhaust fumes has increased on streets in Inverness, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Falkirk and Perth, according to the latest government monitoring.

Legal limits for toxins from traffic were also breached at seven busy city streets across Scotland in 2019, harming health and increasing the risks of cancers, strokes and heart attacks.

The annual limits were meant to have been met in 2010. But at three locations – Hope Street in Glasgow, St Johns Road in Edinburgh and Seagate in Dundee – they have now been exceeded for the last eight years.

Campaigners condemned the pollution as “shameful”, warned that millions were at risk and accused authorities of failing to protect the most vulnerable citizens. The Scottish Government and local councils highlighted the efforts they were making to cut pollution levels.

For the first time in 2019 Academy Street in Inverness recorded concentrations in air of the toxic exhaust gas, nitrogen dioxide, in breach of the 40 micrograms per cubic metre limit. Levels were 15 per cent higher than in 2018.

The nitrogen dioxide limit was also exceeded at Nicolson Street in Edinburgh and Lochee Road in Dundee in 2019. The limit for tiny sooty particles, known as PM10s, was provisionally breached at Salamander Street in Edinburgh.

Scotland’s ten worst polluted streets

LocationNitrogen dioxide levels in 2019
Hope Street, Glasgow55.6
Nicolson Street, Edinburgh48.8
Seagate, Dundee43.9
Academy Street, Inverness43.3
Lochee Road, Dundee42.5
St John's Road, Edinburgh41.9
Byres Road, Glasgow36.7
West Bridge Street, Falkirk36.6
Drymen Road/Roman Road, Bearsden36.1
Atholl Street, Perth35.6
Levels are annual means for 2019 in micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre of air. The legal annual limit is 40 and was meant to have been met in 2010. Source: Friends of the Earth Scotland and www.scottishairquality.scot.

Significant rises in nitrogen dioxide or PM10 levels between 2018 and 2019 were recorded at Byres Road in Glasgow, in the middle of Bearsden in East Dunbartonshire and on the A8 near the Newbridge roundabout on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

There were also pollution increases on Broughty Ferry Road in Dundee, at Bainsford and Grangemouth in Falkirk, on Perth High Street and near the centre of Motherwell in North Lanarkshire.

Friends of the Earth Scotland, which compiled the figures from the Scottish Government’s online database, blamed cars for the pollution. “These figures are shameful,” said the environmental group’s air pollution campaigner, Gavin Thomson.

“They show that air pollution is failing to improve across Scotland, which means millions of us are at risk of serious health conditions, like asthma, heart attacks, and strokes. In many areas, pollution problems appear to be getting worse.

“This is dangerous for our health, and is a failure of government to protect its most vulnerable citizens.”

Thomson pointed out that pollution from traffic also disrupted the climate. “Our transport system is unsustainable. It is harming our lungs, and causing climate change,” he argued.

“If we don’t start prioritising greener transport over fossil fuelled cars, we’ll keep burning the earth and keep breathing in toxic fumes. The government should start by committing to no new road building, and investing the billions that would save into public transport, walking and cycling.”

He added: “We are all at risk from toxic traffic fumes but children and the elderly are at particular risk. By ending the chokehold of cars on our public spaces, we can open our streets up and create healthier, safer communities.”

Ten streets where pollution increased between 2018 and 2019

Academy Street, Inverness
Byres Road, Glasgow
Drymen Road/Roman Road, Bearsden
Glasgow Road, Newbridge, Edinburgh
Broughty Ferry Road, Dundee
Main Street, Bainsford, Falkirk
Municipal Chambers, Grangemouth
High Street, Perth
Menteith Road/Brandon Street, Motherwell
Community High School, Currie, Edinburgh
Locations are where data suggests nitrogen dioxide or particulate pollution has increased most between 2018 and 2019. Source: Friends of the Earth Scotland and www.scottishairquality.scot.

Keir Murdo, a 34-year-old data analyst who lives in Glasgow, described air pollution as an injustice. “I have a young son and I’m really concerned about what he’s breathing in, and the lack of action to reduce pollution,” he said.

“I’d like to see the government and Glasgow City Council respond with the ambition we need, for air pollution and for climate emissions.”

Claire Connachan, a resident of Corstorphine in Edinburgh, was concerned about the pollution in her area. “Having experienced a serious lung condition, it worries me that I am breathing such dirty air when I want to go to the local shops,” she said.

“Air pollution in Corstorphine is a huge problem; the area has been home to one of Scotland’s most polluted streets for many years and air quality is yet to be markedly improved.”

Kirsty Martin, a photographer and community arts worker in Dundee, pointed out that her children walked along the city’s Seagate every weekday to get the bus home from school. “It makes me very angry that they and everyone else who regularly walks here are subjected to such disgusting levels of pollution,” she said.

“It is horribly ironic that those who are travelling by bus for whatever reason, in some cases to avoid using a polluting car, are having to breathe in this foul air to get to and from the city’s bus station.”

Named: the city streets badly polluted by traffic fumes

Local authorities stressed that they were endeavouring to reduce pollution levels – and that they needed investment from the Scottish Government to help them. “Scottish local government is well aware of the health impacts of carbon intensive transport emissions,” said councillor Steven Heddle, environment spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

“We are addressing this through a wide range of measures such as the promotion of active and public transport or the creation of low emission zones.”

Councils supported “cleaner, greener” public transport, Heddle argued. “If the Scottish Government is serious about protecting its most vulnerable citizens from air pollution then it must invest in Scotland’s councils in this year’s budget,” he added.

Glasgow City Council listed its initiatives to cut air pollution. “A wide range of work is underway in Glasgow to encourage higher levels of active travel, drive up standards in public transport and reduce the reliance on private vehicles,” said a council spokesperson.

“The £115 million city deal avenues project will transform the urban realm of 21 major streets in Glasgow city centre to encourage more walking, cycling and economic growth. Similar plans for Byres Road will also support a focus on cycling, reduce the availability of car parking and create a better environment.”

Glasgow’s low emission zone meant that at least 40 per cent of bus journeys through the city centre would now meet the required emission standard. “By the end of 2022 this will rise to 100 per cent at which time the zone will broaden in scope and become applicable to all other vehicle types, including taxis and private cars,” the spokesperson added.

“The recently introduced bus gate on Oswald St is steering hundreds of vehicles away from Hope Street every hour, which will help to reduce emissions in the area.”

City of Edinburgh Council stressed that it was 100 per cent committed to improving air quality. “This week we published our ambitious draft city mobility plan which, as well as addressing climate change and population growth, recognises the threat to health posed by poor air quality,” said transport and environment convener, councillor Lesley Macinnes.

“By prioritising clean, sustainable and active travel this bold strategy is exactly what’s needed to tackle the issue. We’re already taking actions to deal with the problem too, promoting greener transport via active travel or bus, tram or electric vehicles and encouraging lower emission freight transport.”

Macinnes argued that long term trends showed that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles were generally going down. “We have seen great improvements on St John’s Road, but we know there is still work to be done,” she added.

“We are in the process of developing a comprehensive low emission zone scheme for the city, which will be key to our efforts to significantly improve air quality across Edinburgh.”

The Scottish streets poisoned by air pollution

According to Highland Council, air quality in its region was generally very good. “The ongoing work in local air quality management undertaken by the council has, however, identified an area within Inverness city centre where annual mean nitrogen dioxide concentrations were exceeding the UK air quality strategy objective,” said environmental health technical officer, Nick Thornton.

The area included Academy Street, and the pollution was being tackled in conjunction with partners, he added. “An action plan has been drafted that seeks to identify actions that will improve air quality.”

Dundee City Council agreed that vehicle emissions were bad for people and the environment “The issue of improving air quality in Dundee for residents and visitors is one that is high up our agenda,” said Kevin Cordell, convener of the council’s community safety committee.

“Various agencies in the city, including the council, are working on a number of measures to ensure emissions are reduced. One key part of that is the work of the Dundee low emission zone delivery group and its engagement with a variety of stakeholders.”

Cordell stressed that the annual average data for Lochee Road in Dundee for 2019 was provisional. But he added: “It does indicate an improvement compared with the previous year.”

Falkirk Council accepted that “fluctuations” meant that pollution had increased at the Bainsford and Grangemouth sites. “However pollutant levels remained within the relevant national air quality strategy objectives which are designed to protect public health,” said a council spokesperson.

“Falkirk Council has a range of measures as outlined in the annual air quality progress report designed to help reduce localised air pollution from road traffic and other sources.”

The Scottish Government maintained it was working hard to improve air quality. Its “cleaner air” strategy was reviewed in 2019, and an updated strategy would be developed and consulted on in 2020.

The government pointed out that pollution levels at Hope Street in Glasgow had reduced, and that it was investing more than £1 billion in public and sustainable transport each year. A extra £500 million had also been committed to bus priority measures.

“We have seen significant reductions in pollution emissions in recent decades through tighter industrial regulation, improved fuel quality, cleaner vehicles and an increased focus on sustainable transport,” said a Scottish Government spokesperson.

“Scotland enjoys a high level of air quality compared to the rest of the UK and other parts of Europe and we have set more stringent air quality targets. Low emission zones (LEZs) will help further improve air quality in towns and cities by preventing access by the dirtiest vehicles.”

The spokesperson added: “We made more than £18 million available in 2019-20 to support local authorities and fleet operators with the financial costs of establishing, and preparing for LEZs and we will continue to provide support in order to protect public health.

“We are providing practical and financial support to local authorities in tackling local air pollution hotspots. This includes a total of £4.5 million in annual funding.”

The story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

Photo thanks to iStock/ElcovaLana

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