AIR pollution levels in Oxford during 2020 dropped the equivalent to the level of reduction in the last ten years as a result of the gruelling coronavirus lockdowns.

The latest data from air quality monitoring stations spread across the city has shown an average decrease of 29 per cent, which the council says has achieved the lowest levels of air pollution since it first started recording levels in 1996.

The 29 per cent reduction in air pollution levels is equivalent to the level of reduction achieved during the ten-year period between 2009 and 2019.

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Tom Hayes, deputy leader of Oxford City Council said: “The air that you breathe, the air that your loved ones breathe, is the cleanest that it has been in modern times.

"Nobody would want to repeat the lockdowns which reduced air pollution levels by 29 per cent, but they have provided concrete proof that getting people out of polluting cars cleans up our air and protects your lungs."

Mr Hayes, who is responsible for the council's plans to make Oxford zero-carbon, added plans for a Zero Emissions Zone (ZEZ) beginning this August, where any cars that emit fossil fuels would need to pay a daily toll, would be key to making sure air pollution did not jump back up again.

He said: "The city has taken action to meet a public health crisis in the last year, we should be willing to do so for that other invisible public health crisis — air pollution — which hurts the poorest and marginalised in our city the most.

"We need to back the bus, go on boosting the biking boom we’ve started, electrify a lot more transport, and make a success of Britain’s first Zero Emission Zone piloting this year.”

The new data, published in the city council’s latest air quality annual status report shows the average air pollution levels across 71 monitoring stations in the city, during the period between 2020 and 2021.

These stations monitor a gas called Nitrogen Dioxide, or NO2, which is emitted from vehicle exhausts, are harmful to human health, and is the main source of air pollution concern for public health officials.

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In 2020, the average reduction of NO2 levels across the entire city was 29 per cent, consistent with the 20 to 30 per cent reductions in NO2 levels which was observed across the country.

In the first lockdown in particular NO2 levels dropped by a huge 60 per cent.

Throughout the year, all stations were in compliance with a law created by the European Union which the UK still follows, which sets a legal upper limit for 40 micrograms of NO2 per metre cubed of air.

According to data from Oxfordshire County Council, between March 23 and December 31 last year, traffic levels reduced by 35 per cent in Oxford’s city centre.

The biggest NO2 reductions were seen on George Street during the periods of lockdown and pedestrianisation, where the two monitoring stations recorded decreases of 45 per cent and 40 per cent in air pollution levels.

The lowest reductions in air pollution were seen at Cowley Road, Union Street and Sunderland Avenue, which saw a 14 per cent and 15 per cent reduction in NO2 levels.

Oxford’s most air polluted road, St Clement’s saw a large improvement in air quality compared with the previous year.

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Levels of NO2 were still high at St Clement's, at 36 micrograms per metre-squared, though this was a reduction of 32 per cent compared with the previous year.

The air monitoring stations also measure for small pieces of soot, rubber and other material cars throw off as they drive known as particulate matter.

This is divided up into coarse pieces of material called PM10 and fine pieces of material called PM2.5.

Ann average 19 per cent reduction of PM10 levels happened in 2020, and a 22 per cent reduction of PM2.5 levels.

Public health studies in recent years have demonstrated that air pollution has contributed to deaths.

In April 2014, a report issued by Public Health England presented estimates of local 'mortality burdens' associated with particulate air pollution.

The report shows that long term exposure to manmade air pollution in Oxford could be responsible for six per cent of all deaths of people aged 25 and over

And in April, a coroner found that air pollution 'made a material contribution' to the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in 2013, who lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London.

A study involving Oxford University researchers in 2016 found that magnetic particles emitted by cars had become lodged in human brains, and may contribute to the development of Alzheimer's disease.

News of the status report was welcomed by opposition groups on the city council, but they called for action to capitalise on the gains made in 2020.

Dick Wolff, the Green Party's spokesman for transport on the council said: "The challenge is how to 'lock in' these desperately needed reductions which are beneficial to health and welfare. In this respect, the council's plans for a so-called 'zero emission zone' are wholly inadequate.

"Not only will the ZEZ not be truly zero emission but it also covers only a small part of the city. We need a larger zero emission zone that lives up to its name. The council also needs to stop subsidising car parking in the city."