Air quality management leaves poor behind

Analysis of a decade of air quality change in Britain has revealed that deprived neighbourhoods have benefited least from improving air quality.

Using air quality data produced for government’s compliance reporting to the EU, a national spatial analysis of air quality change from 2001 to 2011 related changes in concentrations of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulates (PM10) to area deprivation. Levels of NO2 fell substantially over the period, whilst PM10 levels rose marginally, probably due to the increasing popularity of diesel vehicles.

The study, by Gordon Mitchell, Paul Norman and Karen Mullin, shows that air quality improvement was fastest in the most affluent neighbourhoods, nearly all of which now comply with the NO2 annual average standard. Of the half a million people that still live in an area that does not comply with this standard, 85% are in the most deprived neighbourhoods, up from 66% in 2001. No areas exceed the annual average PM10 standard, but over 9 million people now reside in areas above the more stringent WHO guideline value, of which 59% are in the most deprived areas.

The results, published in Environmental Research Letters, imply that the substantial national burden of disease from air quality  (29,000 premature deaths/yr from particulates and 23,500 deaths/yr from NO2) is increasingly falling on the poor. The authors call on government to make equity analysis part of their clean air planning, to ensure that the most vulnerable populations are treated fairly and adequately protected.

Gordon Mitchell, Paul Norman and Karen Mullin (In press) Who benefits from environmental policy? An environmental justice analysis of air quality change in Britain, 2001-2011. Environmental Research Letters, 10 105009. 

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