A study has found that breathing polluted air has a significant impact on cognitive function, with elderly people and men hit the hardest.
The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, measured the impact of poor quality air on 20,000 people in China over a four year period. It found pronounced deterioration in maths and verbal skills for those exposed to polluted air, equivalent to losing a year’s worth of education.
The impact was most pronounced on people over the age of 64, men and those with poor education levels.
This is not only an issue for developing countries, as, according to the State of Global Air, 95% of the world’s population breathe air with fine particles that violate air quality guidelines.
In the UK it’s estimated that unclean air is responsible for 40,000 deaths each year, and is particularly harmful to unborn and young children.
Do We Have A Right To Clean Air?
Smog and air pollution in London, 10 April 2015 Credit: David Holt Flickr
There is no explicit right to clean air or a healthy environment enshrined in UK law.
However, the UK has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and article 12 of this treaty stipulates that states must ensure, “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is not incorporated into UK law, which means the courts are unable to enforce this right. The UK is still bound to comply with its terms under international law, and is held to account by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, each state is only subject to review once in a five year cycle, and the committees’ ‘Concluding Observations’ reports are not equivalent to legally binding judgements. Rather, they are effectively a set of recommendations which states frequently ignore. This weak accountability mechanism presents a major obstacle for the human rights movement.
The State Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 12
However, in 2014 a landmark ruling in the European Court of Justice forced the UK government to act on cleaning up polluted air, with the Air Quality Directive establishing legal limits for ‘certain pollutants in ambient air.’
Ultimately this ruling embedded the right to clean air in European law.
In January of this year the UK, along with five countries (Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania), was warned by the European Commission that it’s failure to tackle clean air swiftly could result in a multimillion euro fine.
This is because nitrogen dioxide levels, caused by vehicles, have exceeded legal limits in urban areas of the UK since 2010.
UN Special Rapporteur Finds UK is ‘Flouting’ its Duty to Ensure Clean Air
Traffic in York Credit: Andy D’Agorne
In September last year the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxic Waste and Human Rights, Baskut Tuncak, found that the UK government is flouting its duty to protect the lives and health of its citizens from illegal air pollution.
“Air pollution continues to plague the UK. I am alarmed that despite repeated judicial instruction, the UK government continues to flout its duty to ensure adequate air quality and protect the rights to life and health of its citizens. It has violated its obligations,” he said.
I am alarmed that despite repeated judicial instruction, the UK government continues to flout its duty.
UN Special Rapporteur on Toxic Waste and Human Rights, Baskut Tuncak
Local Leaders Take Action
While the government appears to be failing to act decisively on air pollution, civic leaders and local government are taking the initiative.
Earlier this month 17 Mayors and civic leaders, including Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Turnham and representatives of Liverpool, Sheffield, Cardiff, Leeds, Newcastle and Southampton, signed a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Environment Secretary Michael Gove, calling for a National Action Plan to tackle air pollution, urgently.
The letter states, “Our country’s polluted air is shortening lives, damaging our children’s lungs, and severely impacting on the NHS as well as costing the economy in working days lost.”
Our country’s polluted air is shortening lives (and) damaging our children’s lungs.
Joint letter to Prime Minister Theresa May by local government leaders
Thanks to pressure groups, campaigners, and politicians, slowly but surely it seems that the UK is moving to protect our right to breath clean air. However decisive, urgent action, led by the government, is needed to make this a reality and save lives.