Nearly 300 doctors, nurses and other health professionals from across the UK, including more than 100 doctors in London, have signed a letter to prime minister Theresa May calling for government action to remove the current fleet of diesel vehicles from the roads as soon as possible.

Doctors Against Diesel is a recently formed group of doctors, nurses and health professionals campaigning for greater awareness of the health impacts of diesel emissions, and for action to reduce the number of diesel vehicles in towns and cities.

The letter notes the view of the government’s chief medical officer that diesel vehicles should be phased out.

It highlights the evidence regarding a range of health effects of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and black carbon (soot) emissions throughout the life course. It says that in infants and children there is strong evidence, including data from children in London, that exposure to fossil fuel-derived air pollution stunts lung growth. Without urgent action emissions from diesel vehicles will cause irreversible lung damage to the current generation of children.”

The letter states that a national diesel reduction initiative, led by government, would represent a major public health advance.

Professor Jonathan Grigg, professor of paediatric respiratory and environmental medicine, Queen Mary University of London, and founding member of Doctors Against Diesel said: “There is overwhelming evidence that locally-generated sooty particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide is harming children’s health. In London, we know that diesel engines are a major and unnecessary cause of air pollution along our roads. Cutting diesel emissions would therefore have an immediate impact on children’s personal exposure, and improve their long-term health. In children, combining lower pollution exposure with active travel would be a major public health advance – and must be done as soon as possible.”

Professor John Middleton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health said: “NOx emissions breached legal limits in London in the first week of January, and recent figures show that sales of diesel cars have reached an all-time high. Diesel is the primary source of nitrogen dioxide in urban areas and is linked to health effects that begin before birth and extend throughout the life course, from childhood lung development and asthma, to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and dementia. It is time for diesel to be recognised as the health emergency that it is.”