Air pollution levels in Oxford breached international health rules at the beginning of 2017, an investigation by The Times has revealed.

The levels of nitrogen dioxide, which can cause cancer, exceeded both European Union and World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

While levels of nitrogen oxide are supposed to be kept below 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air, the average level of nitrogen dioxide between January and the end of March was 48 micrograms per cubic metre in the city.

The latest figures have led to more calls for a crackdown on diesel cars—which are among the leading producers of nitrogen dioxide.

A number of solutions have been proposed in Oxford, including the introduction of “driverless cars”. Reports earlier this moth suggested that driverless cars could be operating in Oxford city centre from as early as 2017. Oxbotica, a spin-out company from the University’s Robotics Institute, has begun to trial the vehicles in London and plans to continue the experiment in Oxford. Oxford is one of 26 areas of 146 that reached nitrogen dioxide levels that breached EU legislation and WHO guidelines. The Oxford Mail revealed in November that the amount of harmful nitrogen dioxide in the most polluted part of the city—St Clements—rose three per cent between 2014 and 2015, from 65 micrograms per cubic metre to 67. However, roadside levels of nitrogen dioxide have dropped by an average of 35 per cent across the city in the last ten years in Oxford.

Jonathan Grigg, professor of paediatric respiratory and environmental medicine at Queen Mary University of London, and founding member of Doctors Against Diesel, said there was “overwhelming proof” of the harm caused by air pollution, saying: “diesel fleets should be removed from the roads as soon as possible.”

Professor Grigg added: “Exposure over a very long time has an insidious effect. It suppresses the lung growth of children; it’s involved in the onset of asthma, a decline in lung function as you age; and there’s emerging evidence of it causing cognitive problems and also reduced growth of foetuses.”

Speaking to Cherwell, Dr Christian Brand, Senior Research Fellow and Associate Professor at the Environmental Change Institute, responded to the findings, saying: “Generally, I think we have less of an air pollution problem than is often advertised—especially when compared to London, Paris, or Delhi, Beijing.

“Exceedance occurs only in a few hot spots with high traffic flows of diesel buses and London style, Hackney carriage taxis. While annual hourly means of NO2 concentrations are 20 percent above legal limits at 48 micrograms per cubic metre, it is worth remembering that the two roadside monitoring stations measuring these levels are near bus stops—with buses queuing and diesel engines idling.

“So, a pragmatist could just move the local AQ monitoring stations away from bus stops and further up the high street and St Aldate’s—just not next to bus stops.”

Dr Brand added: “The other point to make is that one of the best ways to reduce population exposure to nitrogen dioxide and other key pollutants is to shield pedestrians and other road users from the pollution.

“For example, some public transport stations have plexiglass tunnels, shields and sliding doors that only open when people are alighting or boarding. I am not suggesting this is pretty or feasible but certainly an option.”

A spokesman for the University told Cherwell: “The poor air quality in the City is a concern for the University, which has set in place measures in its Transport Strategy.

“The University has taken action to encourage staff and students to travel to work by sustainable modes and has taken steps to enable staff to travel on business within the City by pedal cycle, electric bikes and mass transit options. The University is also replacing diesel fleet vehicles with Ultra Low Emission equivalents.”

The Oxford Student Green Party issued a statement, saying: “The Oxford Greens have consistently worked to reduce Nitrogen Dioxide levels in the City, by discouraging driving in the centre and calling for sensible organisation of bus routes.

“This is merely further evidence that authorities have failed to treat a life-threatening problem seriously. With the problem growing ever more prominent, Oxford’s people have a chance to make this a significant issue in upcoming elections.”

The findings from the investigation come as the government prepares to publish its plans to improve air quality, after the High Court ruled last year that the current plan was inadequate—ordering a replacement to be produced by 24 April.

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