A ban on building schools, hospitals and care homes next to major roads must be introduced to help cut thousands of deaths estimated to have been caused by air pollution, MPs say.
More than 1,000 schools must also be fitted with air filtration systems to protect children from the “invisible killer”, the environmental audit committee recommended.
It warned that youngsters face lung damage as a result of the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) that is a by-product of motor engines, and suggested that pollutants could also cause infant death.
The committee lashed out at the government for failing to act on previous recommendations and claimed that a generation was at risk of having its health “seriously impaired” by air pollution.
Joan Walley, who chairs the committee, claimed that children growing up near busy roads with high particle emissions have stunted and impaired lung development. She said it was “unacceptable” that a generation would be affected by “illegal” air pollution.
Air pollution from heavy traffic could be killing almost the same amount of people as smoking in the UK. Joan Walley
“Protecting children and vulnerable people in the worst-affected areas must be made a priority by government and local authorities.
“Ministers must pluck up the political courage to take the potentially unpopular decisions necessary to get the most polluting vehicles off the road and encourage more people to walk, cycle or take public transport.
“New figures suggest air pollution from heavy traffic could be killing almost the same amount of people as smoking in the UK, yet the government seems unwilling to put saving lives before economic growth.”
Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said “enough is enough”, adding that the government must act quickly if it is to protect the public: “The government cannot continue to ignore this issue. We knew that air pollution was harmful to our hearts in 2011 when the last report came out. Now the evidence is even stronger.”
Labour backed the proposals, with shadow environment minister Barry Gardiner saying: “Air pollution is a public health crisis that contributes to the deaths of tens of thousands of people each year and yet this Tory-led government has failed to tackle the problem.
“The committee’s report is a thorough and comprehensive assessment of government inaction on air pollution and it fully backs Labour’s commitment to deliver a national framework for low emissions zones.”
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said: “Clean air is vital for people’s health, and while air quality has improved significantly in recent decades, we are investing heavily in measures across government to continue this, committing £2bn since 2011 in green transport initiatives.
Clean air is vital for people’s health. Defra
“We continue to support local authorities in identifying the best solutions for their area and sharing best practice.
“Government further supports these efforts through our air quality grant scheme. We will be responding to the report fully in due course.”