Health problems caused by poor air quality in parts of the UK are worsening, yet the government has failed to introduce reforms, say MPs.

4,000 people died in 2008 as a result of air pollution in London alone; 30,000 died across the UK as a whole.

Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons found that, on average, this often invisible killer shortens the life expectancy of people in the UK by seven to eight months, costing society up to £20 billion per year.

In its latest report, the Environment Audit Committee has found that instead of implementing any of the urgent reforms in policy called for by MPs then, Defra has been playing for time.

In London, authorities have even resorted to spraying roads with adhesives to suppress particulate matter instead of taking long-term measures to tackle the root causes.

Rather than taking action, Defra, the department responsible, is relying on exemptions to meeting European Union air quality laws, which it has applied for and been granted.

MPs condemn this tactic for putting the health of UK residents at risk, and say it "could result in unlimited fines" from the European Commission.

Even with these stretched targets, the daily limit values of small carbon particles called PM10 are still being exceeded, according to the Campaign for Clean Air in London.

The campaign says that by 21 April this year, London had already experienced worse pollution than that allowed by the exemptions for the whole of 2011. This is its worst performance in eight years.

The last UK Air Quality Strategy was published in 2007 and is "widely considered not to be fit for purpose", says the Local Government Group, which represents the councils who are supposed to implement the policy on the ground.

They complained to the Committee that Whitehall departments are just not "joined up" on air quality. There is a real danger that the "Red Tape Challenge" could therefore worsen the situation, so the Committee says that "any impacts to air quality must be explored before regulations are cut".

This means Defra must urgently publish a new updated Strategy, an Action Plan, and establish a ministerial group to oversee and ensure adherence to it.

The strategy must set out how the government intends to achieve EU targets and "whether or not it intends to push for less stringent targets when air quality legislation is reviewed in 2013".

Olympics

The situation directly affects the London Olympics. The Olympics Delivery Authority has made a commitment to holding "the greenest Olympics ever", but the Committee notes that "it is proving difficult for the Mayor to make the required policy trade-offs and achieve acceptable levels of air quality".

While conditions for athletes won't be as bad as they were in Beijing, when authorities stopped traffic on roads while the Olympics were on, short term measures are likely to be used in London to avoid health problems during the games.

The MPs say that most of the measures set out by the government in its response to last year's report "are yet to be brought in" twelve months later.

They find that 40 of the UK's 43 assessment zones are failing to meet EU targets and poor air quality is now shortening the lives of up to 200,000 people by an average of 2 years.

This is not simply a case of EU meddling in UK affairs. EU limit values are health-based standards set by Technical Working Groups of international experts set up by the European Commission, but they are consistent with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance.

If Defra has problems dealing with PM10, it has an even bigger headache with the smaller and more damaging PM2.5 particles and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

The origins of PM2.5 are not even properly understood, according to the Scottish and Northern Ireland Forum for Environmental Research (SNIFFER), which says that "control strategies for PM2.5 may need to be significantly different to those used for PM10" and has called for further research.

No third runway

As for NO2, the MPs note that if a third runway were to be built at Heathrow, this would make compliance with national NO2 limits impossible, and therefore the forthcoming Sustainable Framework for UK Aviation and the Aviation National Policy Statement must prohibit the runway.

The MPs also suggest that the UK copies Germany, which has a national framework for low emission zones, to support local authorities in managing such zones.

Importantly, they says, this "provides certainty to businesses that their fleets will be compliant with all emission zones" across the country.

In summary, they warn that the invisible killer has costs to society that are on a par with those from smoking and obesity, and call for a public awareness campaign "to drive the issue up the political agenda and inform people about the positive action they could take to reduce emissions and their exposure to these".

Four thousand people died as a result of the Great Smog of London in 1952 and this led to the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1956.

Sixty years later, the smog may be gone, but the danger remains.