Toxic fumes from cars, lorries and buses are breaching pollution safety limits and endangering health in urban areas across Scotland, according to the latest government monitoring.

Dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide and tiny sooty particles are polluting busy streets in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, and Falkirk, increasing the risks of disease and premature death. Friends of the Earth say Scotland is in the midst of a 'air pollution health crisis'.

The most polluted street in Scotland is St Johns Road in Edinburgh, which is 60 per cent over the legal limit, followed by Hope Street in Glasgow.

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The new figures, compiled from official measurements by Friends of the Earth Scotland, have prompted a renewed threat of legal action against the Scottish Government for failing to tackle the problem. The safety limits on air pollution were meant to have been met in 2010.

ClientEarth, an environmental group that took the UK government to court on air pollution and won, is warning that Scottish ministers could be next. “These results show the scale of the problem facing Scottish cities,” said ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews.

“People who regularly walk along these streets are being exposed to illegal levels of pollution that can seriously damage their health. Scottish ministers should be aware that they could be subject to legal action if they do not tackle this public health crisis.”

Thirteen urban streets exceeded the annual average limits for nitrogen dioxide or tiny particles, or both, in 2015. This is fewer than the 23 streets in 2014, but campaigners say last year’s wet weather masked the true extent of the pollution.

Emilia Hanna from Friends of the Earth Scotland welcomed news that Scottish ministers could face legal action. “These figures demonstrate just how serious and widespread Scotland’s air pollution health crisis is,” she said.

“Air pollution causes over 2,000 early deaths in Scotland each year at a cost of over £1.1 billion to the economy. Pollution, mostly from traffic, increases the likelihood of strokes, heart attacks and asthma attacks.”

Hanna called on the Scottish Government and local councils to put more resources into cutting pollution, and to ban high-polluting vehicles from city centres. “The government must support local authorities with funding required to implement low emission zones in our cities to tackle the scourge of dirty air in our towns and cities,” she argued.

She was backed by health experts, who stressed the long-term damage caused by air pollution. “It is disappointing that despite the well publicised and documented health hazards attributable to air pollution, Scotland continues to breach air quality standards,” said David Newby, a cardiology professor at the University of Edinburgh.

“This is harming the population of Scotland and potentially causing avoidable health problems including heart attacks and strokes.”

Fintan Hurley, scientific director at the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, argued that any level of pollution was potentially harmful. “The main damage is done by long-term exposure,” he said.

“It really is important to continue to reduce exposures, especially where standards are being breached, but in fact wherever people are living and working. As far as we know, there are no completely safe levels.”

The Scottish Government and councils stressed that significant improvements in air quality had been achieved in recent years. They pointed out that the failure of car manufacturers like Volkswagen to clean up exhaust emissions had not helped.

“We recognise that there is more to be done to deliver further benefits for human and environmental health where areas of poorer air quality remain,” said the environment minister, Dr Aileen McLeod.

“Air pollution disproportionately affects the health of the most vulnerable members of society – the very young, the elderly and those with existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions – and can have a very real impact on quality of life for these individuals.”

The City of Edinburgh Council disputed some of the pollution figures, arguing that actual exposures to people were lower. It listed 14 moves it was making to improve air quality, and pointed out that 97 per cent of city streets met required standards.

“We are making every effort to address pockets of poor air quality in the city,” said the council’s transport and environment convener, Councillor Lesley Hinds. The aim was to create a “cleaner, greener city for everyone”.

‘We are aware that there are improvements which can be made to limit emissions across Edinburgh and at St John’s Road and have made use of Scottish Government funding to investigate ways of achieving this, including hybrid buses, increased provision for electric vehicles and measures to reduce traffic queuing.”

According to Glasgow City Council, 95 per cent of the city now met air quality targets. Levels of nitrogen dioxide at Hope Street had reduced over the last five years.

“While we have made good progress, we recognise that there is more to be done,” said a council spokeswoman. “We will continue to work together with our partners to reduce air pollution levels and improve the health of our citizens.”

TABLE:

Scotland’s most polluted streets

street / 2015 nitrogen dioxide pollution (micrograms per cubic metre) / 2015 particle pollution (PM10 micrograms per cubic metre)

St John's Road, Edinburgh / 65 / no data

Queensferry Road, Edinburgh / 41 / 17

Salamander Street, Edinburgh / 29 / 22

Hope Street, Glasgow / 60 / no data

Dumbarton Road, Glasgow / 40 / 19

Union Street, Aberdeen / 46 / 17

Wellington Road, Aberdeen / 41 / 22

Market Street, Aberdeen / 36 /19

Seagate, Dundee / 50 / 14

Lochee Road, Dundee / 48 / 19

Atholl Street, Perth / 48 / 20

West Bridge Street, Falkirk / 38 / 18

Main Street, Rutherglen / no data / 18

The safety limit for nitrogen dioxide is 40 microgrammes per cubic metre, and for particles 18 microgrammes per cubic metre. Both limits were meant to have been met in 2010.

Source: Friends of the Earth Scotland and www.scottishairquality.co.uk

'As soon as I walked onto Hope Street I started coughing'

Irene Orr, who has recently retired and lives in Edinburgh, blames traffic fumes for triggering her asthma. “The very calm days are the worst as traffic fumes don’t disperse as well,” she said.

“Pollution on St John’s Road is bad. One of the reasons I come to Corstorphine so rarely is because there is always traffic congestion and it’s so polluted.”

She wants the council to crack down on people sitting in their cars with their engines idling. “The Scottish Government needs to provide more alternatives to the car,” she said. “We need cheaper public transport, and more of it.”

Scott Smith, 65, is retired and spends time in Corstorphine’s community centre on St John’s Road. “You can literally smell the diesel fumes,” he said.

“The traffic on this stretch has always been bad but it has got much worse because of more cars on the roads and in particular, cars with just one driver at rush hour.”

Graeme Bald, 64, has suffered from asthma for years and lives in Glasgow. “On certain roads including Hope Street, Great Western Street and Byres Road the traffic fumes can make me cough and struggle for breath,” he said.

“Just last week I got off the bus at Wellington Street and as soon as I turned up Hope Street I started coughing. I kept coughing until I got away from the heavy diesel traffic fumes.”