Up to 530 people could be dying every year from air pollution-related conditions in Birmingham, according to environmental campaigners.
Friends of the Earth have hit out after monitoring stations in the city were shown to be recording levels of pollution above recommended European safety limits.
Of Birmingham’s six monitoring stations, one in Tyburn Road is breaching EU permitted limits for levels of nitrogen dioxide, leading Friends of the Earth to brand the city’s air pollution problem a “silent killer”.
Campaigns co-ordinator Robert Pass said: “We suspect pollution is as bad if not worse in other parts of the city and we need better monitoring to find out.
“The fact is that people are dying and it’s something that has been swept under the carpet but it’s our job to raise the alarm.”
In the 1950s Birmingham was often blanketed by clouds of smog from coal burning homes and industries.
But 60 years on, traffic is now the main cause for concern with prime emissions including carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.
While the number of road traffic deaths in the UK stands at around 2,000 every year, campaigners claim the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution stands somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000.
Mr Pass said: “That’s an absolutely outrageous number of people who are basically being poisoned by the transport system we have in place.”
Last year, environmental lawyers ClientEarth accused the Government of failing to protect Birmingham residents from the harmful effects of air pollution, taking their case to the Supreme Court.
The landmark case used data collected in cities including Birmingham, finding levels of air pollution on some of the city’s busiest roads were more than twice the legal limit.
The case is now going to the European Court where the Government could be ordered to take drastic action to curb pollutants in order to avoid facing European fines. ClientEarth has called for a low-emission zone in Birmingham to improve air quality, saying there are more than 50 such zones in Germany while London’s congestion charge zone has been the UK’s only one, with another launched in Oxford two weeks ago.
While the Government has suggested closing 600 monitoring stations across England to save money, the Department of Health says more than six per cent of adult deaths in Birmingham can be attributed to current levels.
In 2011 the council produced an air quality action plan which highlighted pollution produced by road traffic as a major problem.
The report stressed the problem of nitrogen dioxide, which mainly comes from road vehicles, and highlighted a study which concluded that long term exposure causes lung scarring and emphysema. But Birmingham campaigners say cycling can provide a large part of the solution.
Last year’s successful bid for £17 million of cycling investment has seen Birmingham’s cycle spend per person rocket from £1-2 per year to £12 per year for the next two years.
Friends of the Earth’s Let’s Get Moving campaign is now calling on the council to keep investing £10 per person per year in cycling for the next 10 years to bring the city up to standard.
Mr Pass said: “We’re not asking the council to spend money it doesn’t have but to keep up the momentum of last summer, by continuing to lobby for funding to improve the city’s cycle network, as well as looking for other sources of funding, such as ring-fencing any income from a low-emissions zone for cycling improvements”
Coun James McKay, cabinet member for a green, safe and smart city, said: “The government funding covers the first two years of a much longer-term strategic cycling vision to complete the city’s cycle network – and this also fits into the council’s Birmingham Mobility Action Plan.
“It is not as simple as talking about spend per head on just cycling, as other related projects and initiatives will enhance conditions for cyclists such as improved bus lanes and the proposed introduction of a 20mph limit for residential roads and routes passing through local centres.
“Also once major improvements are made, the spend will move from major infrastructure to repairs and maintenance, which will cost less – but the overall key message is that we are fully committed to improving cycling.”