Neil Parish is MP for Tiverton and Honiton, and chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee.
Air pollution is a public health problem in urgent need of fixing. The scale is significant. The British Heart Foundation estimates that, unless action is taken, the number of heart attack and stroke deaths attributable to air pollution could exceed 160,000 by 2030.
The charity’s research has found fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, can enter our bloodstream and damage the heart and circulatory system, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. And that is just one hazard: PM2.5 has also been linked to many other health problems, such as asthma and dementia.
This week, the Environment Bill will be debated in Parliament. It is the perfect means by which to address this issue. Not only is the Bill a vehicle for strengthening protections for our precious environment, it can improve human health too.
As it stands, the Bill commits to improving the air we breathe – an important first step to following the comprehensive roadmap laid out in our Clean Air Strategy last year. But it could go further and faster in cutting our exposure to toxic air which has been found to be so injurious to our health. That’s why I am tabling vital amendments to the new Environment Bill.
First, the Bill should require the Secretary of State to consider human health in setting environmental targets. Given the dire impact of air pollution on human health, it is essential the Bill references this – alongside improvements to the natural environment.
Second, the Environment Bill should include commitments to adopting 2005 World Health Organization (WHO) guideline limits for PM2.5 by 2030. This would ensure the right level of ambition and reflect one of the key recommendations made in our 2018 Joint Select Committee report, “Improving Air Quality”, published by the EFRA, Environmental Audit, Health, and Transport Select Committees. We need to work further and faster, across government, to improve air quality.
Third, not only should we get on and set these regulations at the earliest opportunity, we should set a mechanism to review statutory targets when the latest scientific evidence is published. For example, updates to the existing WHO guidelines are currently pending, and are likely to be published by 2022. If the Government don’t want to adopt them, they should explain why.
Efforts to reduce toxic air should not be on the back-burner. People across the country have no choice over the air that we breathe, and it’s therefore vital for our Government to take strong action to protect people’s health. Let’s not forget it was Conservative governments in 1956 and 1993 who introduced and strengthened clean-air legislation.
Such opportunities to improve the health of everyone in the country do not come along very often, and it is only with joined-up, cross-governmental support that we can seize the chance to be world leaders on this issue.
As we debate the Environment Bill in Parliament this week, I would urge colleagues to support these more ambitious measures and ensure we have a lasting legacy in tackling air pollution, and protecting human health, for years to come.