More than 280 doctors, nurses and other health professionals have signed a letter to Theresa May calling for national action to dramatically cut the number of diesel cars, vans, taxis and light trucks to protect a generation of young children.

The medics urged the Prime Minister to start phasing out diesel vehicles as soon as possible to cut harmful fumes on the streets of the capital and other cities and towns. “A national diesel reduction initiative, led by Government, will represent a major public health advance,” they said. “However, time is running out, without urgent action emissions from diesel vehicles will cause irreversible lung damage to the current generation of children.”

They highlighted “strong and growing” evidence of a wide range of health impacts over lifetimes from nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and black carbon (soot) emissions 

In the letter drawn up by campaign group Doctors Against Diesel, they emphasised that there are now 585 Air Quality Management Areas across the UK, so most town halls had a statutory duty to take action on illegal levels of air pollution but their hands were tied as they had no powers to ban diesel vehicles

Professor Jonathan Grigg, Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine, Blizard Institute, Queen Mary University of London, said: “In London, we know that diesel engines are a major and unnecessary cause of air pollution along our roads. Cutting diesel emissions would have an immediate impact on children’s personal exposure, and improve their long-term health.”

Professor John Middleton, President of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said: “Diesel...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.”

Scientists estimate the death toll in London from NO2 and small particulate pollution is up to 9,400-a-year, with many more people suffering health problems when toxic air peaks such as in mid-January.

Other signatories of the letter include Professor Inderjeet Dokal, Professor of Paediatrics, Centre for Genomics and Child Health, Queen Mary University London, Professor Adrian Martineau, Clinical Professor of Respiratory Infection & Immunity at Queen Mary University of London, Sir Andrew Haines, Professor of Public Health and Primary Care, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, David McCoy, Professor of Global Public Health, Queen Mary University London, Professor Chris Griffiths, Joint Centre Lead at the Centre for Primary Care and Public Health, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Professor Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Professor Robert Walton, Clinical Professor of Primary Care, Queen Mary University London, Professor Stephen Holgate, Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, Professor John Yudkin, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University College London, Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, Honorary Professor of Public Health, Kings College London, Dr Susan Hill, Consultant Paediatric Gastroenterologist, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, London, as well as more than 70 GP doctors, registrars, trainees or retired general practitioners.