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Is your transport toxic?

London will introduce a new toxicity or T-charge for its most polluting vehicles from 23 October this year.

Drivers of vehicles which do not meet the Euro 3 or Euro 4 standard will have to pay a T-charge of £10, in addition to the existing congestion charge of £11.50.  It is estimated that one third of all vehicles on the road will be subject to this charge, including my ailing Swedish convertible, which doesn’t have historic vehicle status despite being older than many of my colleagues.

As with the existing charge, it will apply Monday to Friday between 7am and 6pm, excluding public holidays.  A penalty charge notice will be £130, reducing to £65 if paid within 14 days.

It is a further attempt to improve the capital’s air quality, which is regularly in breach of annual air pollution legal limits.  By law, hourly levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) must not be more than 200 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) more than 18 times per year.  In 2016, data suggests that over 60% of the air pollution monitoring sites in London broke legal annual limits.  Marylebone Road is Europe’s nitrogen dioxide hotspot. 

A range of other measures have been pledged by London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, including new low emission bus zones, air pollution alerts, and £875m funding over a five year period.  A scrappage scheme for polluting vehicles has also been mentioned, which may be one step closer to the end of the road for my old car.

Pollution from traffic is linked to health problems such as asthma, heart and lung diseases, and child development. Air pollution is said to be linked to up to 9,000 early deaths in London residents.  Over 5000 of these are linked to NO2, produced mainly by diesel vehicles.

If you live outside London, and think you’re safe, you’d better think again.  The European Environment Agency 2016 report Air Quality in Europe identifies the UK as having the second highest level of NO2 related premature deaths, behind Italy, and narrowly leading Germany. 

Other cities in the UK share London’s pollution problem.  In 2015 around 40% of local authorities experienced nitrogen dioxide levels which exceeded legal limits.  The national rise in the use of diesel vehicles is blamed for high NO2 levels in most major UK cities.

So how are we dealing with it?

Following a challenge by ClientEarth in November 2016 the High Court ruled that the government’s plan to combat air pollution were not compliant with the UK’s obligations under the EU Air Quality Directive.  This follows a similar successful challenge in the Supreme Court by ClientEarth in 2015, which sent the government back to the drawing board. The High Court has ruled that a new plan must be in place by the end of July 2017.  NGOs and commentators wait with interest to see how the government will respond.

To make matters worse, the EU recently issued the UK with a final warning regarding its NO2 levels.  The UK has 2 months to respond to this warning, and if it does not address the matter to the satisfaction of the EU, the Court of Justice of the EU could impose significant fines on the UK government, up to as much as £1.5bn. 

And here is where it gets more serious.  The long term effects of air pollution could go far deeper than chest and respiratory complications.   Recent studies suggest that people living near a major road have a significantly greater likelihood of contracting dementia than others living in less polluted environments.

In a study of the health histories of 6.6 million residents of the Canadian province of Ontario, between 2001 and 2012, more than 243,000 people developed dementia.  Almost all lived within a kilometre of a motorway or dual carriageway and half of those lived within 200m of one.

The results, published in the Lancet journal on 4 January 2017, suggest that those residents living within 50m of a busy road were at a 7% greater risk of developing a neurodegenerative condition than the study population as a whole.  

Previous research has linked air pollution and traffic noise with mental degeneration.  Magnetite nanospheres from engine or brake wear have been found in human brains, with suggested links to Alzheimer’s disease.  Research is ongoing, and we may not know for some time just how these all fit together. 

As my aging motor retreats from the streets of central London, the UK prepares to leave the EU and withdraw from the reaches of the EU Court of Justice.  I am practicing holding my breath at traffic lights and busy junctions, and wondering what the air of the future will hold.

For further information please ring Craig Burman of our Environmental and Regulatory Team who will be happy to talk to you.


About the Author

Craig Burman


Craig advises on contentious and non-contentious environmental, health and safety and regulatory matters. …

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