Environment Bill must go further to protect against air pollution

29 October 2019        

Category: BHF Comment

The Government risks missing a once in a generation opportunity to tackle deadly air pollution if it fails to strengthen its Environment Bill, our Chief Executive has warned today.

The Environment Bill 2019, introduced into the House of Commons two weeks ago by the Environment Secretary Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP, received its Second Reading last night. The Bill seeks to deliver on the Government’s commitment in its 2017 manifesto to “to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it”.

To achieve this, the Bill sets out new provisions in a range of areas regarding the environment. This includes setting much needed new air quality limits.

BHF-funded research has shown that exposure to air pollution, especially fine particulate matter (known as PM2.5) can damage our heart in a multitude of ways, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. However, our current legal limits set by the EU are not health-based and permit dangerously high levels of harmful pollutants to health, like PM2.5.

While the Environment Bill does make a welcome step forward in this area by committing to stricter targets for PM2.5, regrettably, it does not adopt the World Health Organization’s (WHO) limits for this and other harmful pollutants.

The BHF has been advocating for the WHO’s limits to be adopted into the Environment Bill as these are the most robust guidelines for protecting health against the damaging impact of air pollution. These limits must be enshrined now and not by 2022 as envisaged by the Bill. Furthermore, there must be a legally binding commitment to meet them by 2030. This is crucial to driving forward action at the pace and scale needed to reduce air pollution - and minimise the risk it poses to the nation’s heart, circulatory and respiratory health – as quickly as possible.

Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive of the British Heart Foundation, said:

“Every year in the UK, outdoor air pollution is responsible for an estimated 11,000 deaths due to a heart attack or stroke. This figure is far too high. Unfortunately, our current legal limits for air pollution fail to provide the protection to health needed as they permit dangerously high levels of the most harmful pollutants, including PM2.5.

“The long-awaited Environment Bill makes some promising steps forward by recognising the need for stricter targets for PM2.5.  However, recognition alone won’t suffice. Until we have the World Health Organization’s health-based standards for air quality adopted into UK law, the nation’s heart and circulatory health will continue to be at risk.

“We need legislators to grab this once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure the Bill has a greater focus and commitment to protecting health, starting with the adoption of WHO limits into the legislation. These limits must be binding by 2030 to drive forward the urgent action required to reduce air pollution at the pace and scale needed to protect the nation’s health.”

As is standard during the Second Reading, the general principles of the Environment Bill were debated last night. The BHF, along with a range of other health charities and organisations that are members of the Healthy Air Campaign, briefed MPs ahead of the Second Reading on our concerns about the Bill’s general lack of focus on protecting public health. These concerns and the changes we believe are needed – especially the need for binding WHO limits by 2030 to be contained in the legislation – were raised by a number of MPs across the major parties.

Although the Bill was voted through to its next stage, we will continue to influence as it goes through its passage in the House of Commons and House of Lords.

Find out why air pollution is a problem