Air pollution is causing the early deaths of up to 50,000 people a year and making thousands more ill - but the Government is failing to take enough action to tackle the problem, MPs said today.
The UK should be "ashamed" of its poor air quality and the harm it is causing to people's health and the environment, a report by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee said.
The report said pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen oxides and "particulate matter" from transport and power stations contributed to conditions such as asthma, heart disease and cancer.
The failure to reduce levels of pollution has "enormous" costs for the NHS, and puts the UK at risk of multimillion-pound fines from Brussels for missing air quality targets, the committee said.
It called for the Government to make air quality a much higher priority, to raise awareness and educate the public on the dangers and how to minimise their exposure to pollution.
And the MPs said major changes were needed to policies on transport, which accounts for up to 70% of pollution in towns and cities.
Tim Yeo, chairman of the Committee, said: "Air pollution probably causes more deaths than passive smoking, traffic accidents or obesity, yet it receives very little attention from Government or the media.
"In the worst affected areas this invisible killer could be taking years off the lives of people most at risk, such as those with asthma.
"The large EU fines we face, if we don't get to grips with this problem, should now focus Ministers' minds.
"Much more needs to be done to save lives and reduce the enormous burden air pollution is placing on the NHS."
Particulate matter is estimated to reduce people's lives by an average seven to eight months across the UK - while in pollution hotspots, vulnerable residents, such as those with asthma, could be dying up to nine years early.
The health costs of pollution, which are estimated at around £8.5 billion to £20.2 billion but could be even higher, are comparable to the costs to society of dealing with alcohol, the report said.
And the UK is facing the risk of "substantial" fines for its failure to meet EU regulations on limiting pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides in our cities.
Air pollution also leads to damage to wildlife and agriculture, with ground level ozone estimated to reduce wheat yields in the south of Britain by 5% to 15%, the report said.
The committee called for the Government to do more to raise awareness of the problem and for more joined up action between departments, as well as greater support to help local authorities address pollution and a shift in transport policy.
EU emissions standards for vehicles were not doing enough to cut pollution, the report warned.
It called for measures such as national standards for low emission zones, like the one covering London, to make it easier and cheaper for local authorities to bring them in.
And more research is needed to understand the impact of particulates created by wear on tyres and brakes and those lying on the road which are whipped up into the air by passing vehicles.
Many changes to transport policy, including encouraging people onto public transport or cycling and developing greener cars, are already being driven by efforts to tackle climate change, the MPs said.
But in some cases climate change measures were exacerbating air pollution problems, for example encouraging diesel vehicles which were more fuel efficient but produced more particulates or the introduction of biomass boilers in urban areas.
Such problems showed the need for a more joined-up approach by government, the report said.
A Defra spokesman said: "We take improving air quality and meeting EU targets very seriously and have already made significant achievements - since 1990 we have succeeded in reducing sulphur dioxide emissions by 86% and have nearly halved particulates.
"We are working across government to reduce emissions further across a number of sectors including transport and electricity generation and have introduced a range of measures that have made a significant impact in improving air quality including investment in public transport, new emissions standards for cars, lorries and buses and tax incentives for less polluting vehicles. But we recognise that there is more to do and will consider the EAC report carefully."Reuse content