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Create more ‘no idling’ zones to curb air pollution, councils urged

And enforce engine switch-off for stationary cars, say NICE and PHE

Caroline White

Friday, 30 June 2017

Councils should do more to enforce no vehicle idling outside schools, hospitals, and care homes, to protect the vulnerable from the harmful effects of air pollution and improve air quality across England, say the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and Public Health England (PHE) in joint guidance issued today.

Bylaws to enforce engine switch-off while cars are stationary could help protect the vulnerable, suggests the guidance.

Air pollution is harmful to everyone, but some people are more at risk than others, it says: children and young teens and older people are more susceptible, as are those with respiratory conditions or heart problems.

“Air pollution is a major risk to our health, and so far, suggested measures have not managed to tackle the problem sufficiently,” said Professor Paul Lincoln, chief executive of the UK Health Forum and chair of the NICE guideline committee.

“This guidance is based upon the best evidence available. It outlines a range of practical steps that local authorities can take, such as the implementation of no-idling zones, to reduce emissions and protect the public.”

PHE estimate long-term exposure to particulate air pollution has ‘an effect equivalent to’ around 25,000 deaths a year in England, making air pollution the largest environmental risk linked to deaths every year. The health impact of air pollution caused by human activities in the UK is thought to cost between £8.5 and £18.6 billion a year.

Professor Paul Cosford, PHE’s director of health protection and medical director, said: “We need a concerted effort to address the health impacts of air pollution and this report shows there are steps we can all take to help tackle it. Many of us can walk or cycle instead of using the car, particularly on short journeys. We can all avoid idling our engines and drive more smoothly to reduce emissions.”

He continued: “Councils can include low and zero emission strategies in their plans. For example, providing charging points for electric vehicles and introducing Clean Air Zones which can include restrictions or charges for certain types of high polluting vehicles.” 

Healthcare professionals also had a role to play, he said. They “can advise individuals, particularly those who are most vulnerable, on how to reduce the personal impact of air pollution. For example, by reducing strenuous activity when air pollution is high, and by using less polluted routes in towns and cities.”

While most of the recommendations are aimed at local authority staff working in transport, planning, and public health, the guidance also seeks to raise awareness among the general public.

If implemented, the guidance will specifically target air pollution caused by road traffic, which is estimated to contribute nearly two thirds of all air pollution recorded at urban sites. This comes from exhausts and other sources, such as tyre wear.  

Among the raft of recommendations, the guidance urges councils to consider introducing a Clean Air Zone (a region that has regulations to limit emissions of gasses such as nitrogen dioxide) that: restricts or charges for the use of certain vehicles; supports zero- and low-emission travel (such as walking and cycling); aims to reduce exposure to air pollution across the whole zone rather than focusing on air pollution hotspots.

Where traffic congestion is contributing to poor air quality, councils should consider incorporating a congestion charging zone within the clean air zone, the guidance suggests.

And it recommends that councils promote smooth driving by: providing real-time information to tell drivers what the current optimum driving speed is; and removing physical barriers such as speed bumps and setting 20 mph speed limits in areas where average speeds are already low.

Professor Mark Baker, director for the centre of guidelines at NICE said: “The battle against air pollution has to be one we are all fully committed to, and our actions should know no boundaries. We need a long-term plan to improve air quality. Our guidance can help us to achieve that.”

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