Toxic fumes from vehicle exhausts have polluted 17 of Glasgow’s busiest streets in breach of a legal safety limit that should have been met seven years ago.
An investigation by The Ferret has revealed levels of poisonous gas belched out by cars, lorries, buses and taxis up to 80 per cent above the limit, putting public health at risk.
The worst polluted place was Hope Street, followed by Gordon Street, the Heilanmans Umbrella and Union Street. Many of the city’s other famous thoroughfares were badly contaminated, included George Square, Sauchiehall Street, Bath Street, Buchanan Street and Broomielaw (see table below).
Air pollution kills 2,500 people a year in Scotland, according to environmentalists. It can worsen lung diseases such as asthma, and has been linked to heart attacks, strokes and dementia.
A major US study last week suggested that air pollution could also heighten the risk of breast cancer amongst women. Tiny sooty particles emitted by engines increased the density of breasts, it said, making the growth of tumours more likely.
Glasgow City Council declared the whole of the city centre an air pollution zone in 2004. The latest report on this “air quality management area” discloses the results of test-tube monitoring for the marker pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, at 28 city centre locations.
Between 2011 and 2015 seventeen streets recorded average annual levels of the gas higher than the legal limit of 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air. Councils were meant to have complied with the limit by 2010.
Four streets had very high average levels of pollution: Hope Street (73.2), Gordon Street (70), the north of the Heilanmans Umbrella North (69.4) and Union Street (63.6). Experts point out that levels below the safety limit also damage health.
“Some of the values are very high and you can get health effects below the standard,” said Fintan Hurley, a UK government air pollution advisor and scientific director at the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh.
“Long term exposure is linked to increases in mortality in adults. Studies of people living near busy roads show a range of effects, including increasing childhood asthma.”
Friends of the Earth Scotland described the figures as “shocking” and called for the introduction of a low emission zone banning polluting vehicles. “This is needed to protect thousands of people working and spending time in the city and breathing its toxic air,” said the group’s air pollution campaigner, Emilia Hanna.
“People’s right to breathe clean air has been flouted for far too long. Whichever party gets control of the city after May must do whatever they can to improve public transport, walking and cycling provision and secure a strong low emission zone for the city.”
She pointed out that over half of Glaswegians don’t have access to a car. “Yet they are being forced to breathe in these lethal fumes which are predominantly caused by cars and buses trapped by congestion.”
According to the Green Party councillor for Glasgow Hillhead, Martha Wardrop, air pollution particularly damaged the health of children and the elderly. “Greens have a comprehensive plan to tackle air pollution across the city centre,” she said.
“We would invest 10 per cent of the transport budget on walking and cycling routes, and introduce a low-emission zone to reduce traffic. Green councillors support exploring the option of a publicly-owned electric bus company for Glasgow and development of rapid electric charging points for taxis.”
Glasgow City Council stressed that air quality was getting better, with a “downward trend” in the concentration of key pollutants in recent years. “Local government simply does not have access to the powers or the policy levers that could have a more dramatic impact,” said a council spokesman.
“Glasgow has been closely involved in the development of the clean air for Scotland strategy. This will draw together the policies being implemented and developed across a range of central, regional and local government portfolios for the first time.”
The strategy was working towards a national low emission framework, he added. “Glasgow will aim to make best use of any new powers as and when they become available – and continues to lobby, through the UK core cities network, for a greater emphasis on air quality at government level.”
Glasgow's polluted streets
|street||average annual levels of nitrogen dioxide 2011-2015 (micrograms per cubic metre)|
|Hope Street 1||73.2|
|Heilanmans Umbrella North||69.4|
|Hope Street 3||52.8|
source: 2016 Air Quality Progress Report for Glasgow City Council
A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 9 April 2017.