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Dangerous air pollution levels return after pandemic shutdown, analysis shows

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Friends of the Earth Scotland have warned this pollution could seriously harm our health.

Environmental campaigners have called for action to tackle growing pollution levels as research shows legal air quality limits were breached across the country last year.

Following a historic low in 2020 amid the shutdown of the coronavirus pandemic, analysis of air pollution data for 2021 show rising quantities of dangerous particles linked to transport use. 

The research by Friends of the Earth Scotland found that as traffic levels increased through 2021, air pollution rose correspondingly.

Legal air quality standards came into force in 2010, yet have been broken every single year since except 2020. 

Air pollution kills 2,500 people in Scotland each year and puts the population at risk of serious health conditions, like asthma, heart attacks, and strokes. It’s especially harmful to children, the elderly, and people living in poverty or made vulnerable from other health conditions.

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s transport campaigner, Gavin Thomson, said: “Scotland once again has illegal air quality in 2021, which is shocking but not surprising given the lack of political action on the issue. 

“2020 was an outlier for obvious reasons and we witnessed unprecedented changes to all areas of public life. But for traffic emissions, it was back to business as usual in 2021. 

“From the evidence we have, virtually every street in Scotland experienced higher levels of pollution in 2021 than the previous year.

“Air pollution from transport is responsible for thousands of premature deaths in Scotland every year, and causes serious heart and lung issues. The growing evidence base showing the links between air pollution and vulnerability to Covid-19 is only the latest reason why we have to act to protect public health.”

Hope Street in Glasgow recorded an annual average above the legal limit for diesel pollution, while many streets across Scotland saw pollution spike back up despite working from home continuing through the year and the country being in lockdown for months. 

While the busy Glasgow road once again breached legal air quality limits for nitrogen dioxide, other streets such as Salamander Street in Edinburgh and Atholl Street in Perth experienced increases in particulate pollution.

Locations in Dundee, Falkirk, Cupar and Aberdeen were also cited for their consistently poor levels of air quality.

Campaigners say this data shows governments and councils have not done enough to reduce car traffic. 

Mr Thomson said: “The temporary improvements in air quality in 2020 arrived at an enormous cost to our communities and societies. There was no intention or concerted political action to reduce emissions, which is why the falls were not maintained when restriction eased. 

“We need a just transition for transport, including taking control of our public transport to run comprehensive services that serve passengers not profit, and more options for safe walking and cycling, to improve the air we breathe permanently.”

Felicity Neyme runs the active travel group at Davidson’s Mains primary school in Edinburgh. She said: “These days we all know about the dangers of smoking and even plastic in waterways but I am concerned about the lack of awareness amongst parents and grandparents about the impact of air pollution on children’s lungs. 

“We need publicly available data on air quality at schools, safer routes to school so parents don’t feel they have to drive and we need stricter regulation banning vehicles near school.”