The burning question: How can we meet the WHO’s guidelines on particulate matter?


The government is resisting peers’ attempts to amend the Environment Bill to set air quality targets in line with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. But why, and what policy options would ministers have to consider in order to meet the body’s recommendations? Gareth Simkins investigates

Reducing air pollution – and with it the damage to health that it entails – is a laudable goal in anyone’s books.

Hence the recent clamour in the House of Lords to slash legal limits on fine particulates (PM2.5) during its third reading of the Environment Bill. On 6 September, it passed an amendment to set a limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre as an annual average for PM2.5, to be attained by 2030. The figure reflects guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2005.

PM2.5 is the fraction of fine particulates that can penetrate deepest into the lungs and even through the bloodstream and into the brain. Scientific studies have long highlighted its baleful effects on human health, from diabetes and cardiovascular disease to kidney failure, lung cancer and glaucoma. The UK’s current legal limit for it, again as an annual average, is a comparatively generous 25µg/m3.

The pollutant is “recognised by the government to be the single largest environmental risk to health in the UK”, said Labour peer Sue Hayman when first proposing her amendment in June. She added that puting the target on the face of the bill, rather than setting a weaker one later via regulations, would answer the demands of the coroner in the case of young Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who was killed by dirty air.

The government has long resisted simply adopting the WHO’s recommendation, though it has pledged to take it “into consideration”. The amendment may well be dumped when the Commons finalises the bill.

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~sENDS Report, 21 October 2021