he director of a group of academics who revealed the number of Londoners dying prematurely from air pollution today insisted there were strong health grounds for expanding the ultra-low emission zone.

Professor Frank Kelly, of Imperial College London, spoke out as five Tory councils confirmed they were taking High Court action against Mayor Sadiq Khan’s allegedly “unlawful” Ulez expansion to the Greater London boundary.

The councils – Bexley, Bromley, Harrow, Hillingdon and Surrey County Council – claim there has been a “false scare over air quality” and Ulez will have “negligible or nil impact” on toxic air in the suburbs.

But Professor Kelly, a global authority on the health effects of toxic air, insisted widening the Ulez “as soon as possible” would improve the health of Londoners.

In an interview with the Standard, he challenged critics to visit their local hospital to see the impact toxic air has on children.

He said: “Take the time to go along to your local hospital and go into the respiratory wards and see the kids with asthma there, who are having real difficulty breathing, and their parents not knowing what is going to happen.

“I think most people don’t really understand what the problem is. If they can’t see it, they can’t understand it.”

Mr Khan’s decision to expand the Ulez to the Greater London boundary from August 29 this year was based on landmark research by Imperial College.

Professor Kelly’s environmental research group found that between 3,600 and 4,100 deaths in the capital in 2019 were “attributable” to the effects of nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5 particulates.

But Ulez opponents have become increasingly vociferous in denying the extent of the capital’s poor air quality and the wider health benefits likely to result from widening the zone, which charges drivers of more polluting vehicles £12.50 a day.

I think most people don’t really understand what the problem is. If they can’t see it, they can’t understand it

Earlier this week Boris Johnson — who drafted plans for the original central London Ulez while mayor — described the Greater London extension as “mad” and an “unfair tax grab”.

But Professor Kelly said: “Since the publication of the new World Health Organisation air quality guidelines in 2021, there is really no place in London now where there is not an air quality challenge.

“There is a health benefit for everyone if we can reduce air pollution in every part of the city.”

Due to the impact of the pandemic, the 2019 research remains the best estimate of the harm done by air pollution in London.

No academic research yet exists on the number of early deaths that will be avoided if the Ulez expansion goes ahead.

An independent assessment commissioned by Transport for London from the consultancy Jacobs last summer predicted the expansion would deliver a “moderate” reduction in nitrogen oxides and a “minor” reduction in PM emissions, and overall a “minor positive impact” on health.

Bromley claims Imperial’s estimate – of 204 premature deaths in the borough in 2019 – failed to take account of the size of its elderly population.

Professor Kelly accused Bromley of trying to “misrepresent” his team’s findings. He said: “Yes, they have an older age demographic than some of the inner boroughs. But the bottom line is older people are more sensitive, in the same way young kids are, to air pollution.

“Therefore if they introduce measures, be it the Ulez or something else, which reduces the exposure of these older residents, they’re going to see a benefit to their health. They’re going to live longer, and they’re going to live longer with better health.

“That is the point I just find incredibly sad — that they think their residents, just because they’re old, don’t deserve better air quality.”

He added: “If you don’t decide to improve air quality as quickly as you can, then what you have is ongoing problems with kids with asthma, and the numbers of them going into hospital.

Poor air quality caused by pollution is linked to asthma

/ PA Wire

“There are a number of people who have existing heart disease requiring more medicine. And, unfortunately, you get some people dying before they should do.

“We know that any delay in improving air quality is going to have an ongoing additional health impact on the citizens. That is why something like the Ulez, which is directly addressing the emissions which make our air quality poor, is something we really need as soon as possible.”

Several Labour MPs have echoed calls from some councils for the expansion to be delayed due to the cost of living crisis making it harder for Londoners to upgrade their cars.

Professor Kelly admitted the improvements in air quality in outer London were unlikely to be as “dramatic” as those seen in central and inner London.

“But the bottom line is that even driving down emissions by whatever per cent is going to be of benefit,” he said. “We know there is this a strong relationship between air quality and health outcomes.

“Yes, if we expand it, there are going to be [cost-of-living] challenges for a number of people. But there is this issue of environmental justice — many of the poorest people don’t have a vehicle and they’re suffering from the emissions from those that do.

“The benefit of expanding the Ulez as soon as possible will mean air quality will improve quicker than it would if you delayed it.”

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