The strategy designed to cut air pollutants which can adversely affect human health is to be reviewed across the UK. The Air Quality Strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland review focuses on the effectiveness to date of the policies contained in the current strategy, and presents a new approach which aims to reduce exposure to pollutants which have no safe exposure level across the whole population rather than concentrating on hotspots.

New measures to tackle air pollution could extend life expectancy, cut environmental damage from acidic air pollution and generate benefits of £1.4billion a year, the government said today.

Air pollution is currently estimated to reduce the life expectancy of every person in the UK by an average of eight months. Measures outlined for consultation today in a review of the Air Quality Strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could help to reduce the impact on average life expectancy to five months by 2020 .

Despite significant reductions in emission of many pollutants, air pollution still harms health and causes environmental problems.

Minister for the Local Environment, Ben Bradshaw, said: “Although our air is cleaner in overall terms than at any time since the industrial revolution, air pollution is not declining as quickly as expected. We need to move faster and take further measures to move us closer to meeting our objectives.

“Pollutants from our cars, ships and industrial plants are still having a marked affect on our health, reducing the average life expectancy in the UK by eight months.

“This can't continue. The measures outlined in this Review would – if implemented – be a significant step forward in improving public health and our environment.”

The current situation is that:

Over the past ten years the quality of our urban air has improved from 1990 to 2001 the improvements have helped avoid 4,200 premature deaths per annum and 3,500 hospital admissions;

we are continuing to meet objectives for pollutants like carbon monoxide, 1,3-butadiene, benzene and lead;

we are meeting our current objectives for all air pollutants in over 99% of the UK.

However, there are still problems: - we are expected to miss our targets for reductions in nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particles which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems; - in 2005, pollution in UK expected to reduce average life expectancy by 8 months; - in 2003, pollution in UK led to over half of natural and semi-natural habitats to exceed harmful levels of acidity.

The new Strategy: - offers a package of measures which will reduce average exposure to air pollutants for everyone; - if implemented could see increase in life expectancy of three months by 2020; and - consists of a range of measures, including:

1. new tighter European vehicle emissions standards (so called Euro-standards);

2. incentives for cleaner vehicles;

3. further reductions in emissions from small combustion plants;

4. further reductions in emissions from ships;

Mr Bradshaw said that this was one of the most comprehensive environmental studies carried out by Government: “In the past we have concentrated on the ‘hotspots' where we may not have been hitting our air quality objectives.

“This consultation suggests a much more wide ranging approach for pollutants such as fine particles (PM 2.5), which is cost effective, and geared towards improving public health in the UK.” An updated strategy should be published at the end of the year drawing conclusions from this consultation and providing a clear, long-term vision for air quality.

The review of the UK's climate change programme published 28 March is intended to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases but will also have some small benefits on emission of air pollutants.