A campaign group has called for action after research revealed Oldham’s air pollution is at twice health guidelines.

The borough's air pollution is estimated to be 1.7 to 2 times higher than World Health Organization guidelines, according to new research by The Guardian newspaper.

Oldham’s concentration of ‘PM2.5’ particles was estimated to be between an average of 8.5 to 10 micrograms per cubic metre, higher than the WHO guidelines of 5 micrograms per cubic metre. Pollution in the Salford, Manchester, and Stockport boroughs was estimated even higher, at between 10 to 12 micrograms per cubic metre.

The research found that 98 per cent of Europeans are breathing air which is polluted beyond the guidelines.

However, the level in Oldham was lower than the current UK legal limits, which is four times higher – at 20 micrograms per cubic metre.

Manchester Friends of the Earth’s Pete Abel said that ‘legal limits are not safe health limits.’

PM2.5 particles are smaller than the width of a human hair and are too small to be seen with the naked eye – but can appear as a haze or smog on days of high air pollution.

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Particulate matter is caused by several human sources – such as wood-burning, vehicle tyre and brake wear, and burning fossil fuels.

A small proportion of particulate matter is also caused by natural sources, such as pollen and sea spray.

Exposure to particulate matter can lead to death and illness, such as coronary heart disease.

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Political leaders ‘need to show more ambition’

Pete Abel, from Manchester Friends of the Earth, said: “Dirty air damages us all - our kids, our friends and families - air pollution causes untold damage to the lungs and development of our children and Greater Manchester has one of the highest rates in the country for emergency hospital admissions of children with asthma and other respiratory infections.

“Air Pollution is linked to a wide range of other serious health impacts and in Greater Manchester particulate air pollution (PM2.5) causes the premature deaths of over 1000 people each year. 

“The UK Government should have taken action to reduce air pollution below legal levels by 2010 but failed to do so and in 2016 was instructed by the High Court to meet air quality limits in “the shortest time possible”.

“Seven years later, the Greater Manchester Clean Air Plan is effectively on 'pause’ and even before the latest delays, the revised GM Clean Air Plan did not expect to meet the legal limits until 2027.

“But legal limits are not safe health limits. In September 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) drastically reduced their guidance for limits on air pollution levels because of the increasing research evidence of the harms that air pollution causes.

“Greater Manchester is a World Health Organisation Breathe Life City region and has pledged to meet the WHO air quality levels by 2030.  The Guardian air pollution map shows that Oldham and all of Greater Manchester has a long way to go.

“We need our political leaders – both national and in Greater Manchester - to show more ambition to tackle dirty air pollution.

“The UK government needs to be giving more support to help clean up our dirty air - including more money to help people switch to cleaner vehicles, especially those on low incomes – and for greater investment in public transport and cycling & walking infrastructure.

“How much longer do we need to wait for Greater Manchester to start taking effective action to tackle the public health emergency caused by air pollution?"

Government responds

A Defra spokesperson said: “The government has delivered significant improvements in air quality at a national level, with PM2.5 emissions down by 10% since 2010.

“However, we recognise there is more to do. Our Environmental Improvement Plan sets out how we will continue to drive down emissions from domestic burning, agriculture, transport and industry, while we have set new targets for PM2.5 – the most harmful pollutant to human health – under the Environment Act. Together this will deliver cleaner air for all.”

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority did not respond to request for comment.

Clean Air Zone

Greater Manchester’s Clean Air Zone was paused in February last year.

Drivers of lorries, buses and coaches which did not meet emissions standards would have been charged £60 a day to enter Greater Manchester boundaries from May 2022, while non-compliant vans, taxis and private hire vehicles were set to face daily charges of £7.50 in 2023.

Some funding was available for upgrading vehicles, but the government’s final offer of £120m was less than what Greater Manchester had asked for.

Drivers of private cars would not have faced a charge. The plans were put on hold after backlash.