Public Health England (PHE) has put forward a series of recommendations aimed at reducing the 28,000 to 36,000 deaths a year in Britain attributed to long-term exposure to polluted air.
One recommendation in the PHE report published here on Monday is for town and city councils to be given powers to implement no-idling zones to stop people leaving their car engines running while waiting outside schools, hospitals and care homes.
Another proposal would see low-emission or clean air zones to discourage the most highly polluting vehicles from entering populated areas.
The 250-page report says air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in Britain, with strong evidence that air pollution causes the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and lung cancer, and exacerbates asthma.
"The evidence is clear on the scale of harm from air pollution. It is the largest environmental risk to the public's health in the UK," warns the report.
It adds: "People are exposed to outdoor air pollution in the places where they live, work and spend their leisure time. Whilst there are opportunities for individuals to reduce their personal exposure, or that of their children, these are limited."
The report also says that public spaces should be redesigned so people aren't so close to highly polluting roads by making streets wider or using green hedges to screen against pollutants. There should also be more investment in clean public transport, footpaths and cycle paths.
The report says the inexorable increase in road, air and sea transport, industrialization of food production and many other factors mean that air quality remains a major public health issue.
"Walking, cycling and other forms of active travel are great for improving health and reducing air pollution, but too often people are put off by the risk of exposure to high concentrations of pollutants," it adds.
Professor Paul Cosford, PHE's medical director, said: "Action is needed at all levels to address this unacceptable, serious and avoidable source of harm to our health. We all have a role to play in helping to make sure that the air that we, and future generations, breathe is clean air."
Cosford said a key challenge is the commonly held view that actions to reduce air pollution run counter to economic growth and development.
"In my view the evidence presented in this report highlights that this is not the case. None of us wish to put ourselves or our children at risk from the increasing number of conditions linked to poor air quality, but we do want to live, work, bring up our children and grow old in cleaner environments. This desire, coupled with the space for new technologies, is surely an opportunity for better air quality and economic prosperity to go hand in hand," he said.
In January, the British government announced a "Clean Air Strategy" setting out plans to meet ambitious legally binding international targets to reduce emission of the five most damaging air pollutants by 2030. It will be followed by a wider Environment Bill.(2019-03-11 Xinhua)