The report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on pollution in more than 4,000 cities worldwide warns that globally, seven million people a year are dying due to poor air quality.
The report said 31 out of 54 UK towns and cities where fine particle pollution called PM2.5 is measured had levels in 2015 that were above WHO safe limits.
The particles, which come from exhaust fumes and the burning of fossil fuels, are linked to health problems including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory infections.
Alison Cook, Director of Policy at the British Lung Foundation, called for new legal limits on pollution levels. She said: “This report reconfirms that air pollution is one of the leading environmental public health crises in the UK today. Action to reduce the toxic particles in the air we breathe can no longer be delayed.
“How much more evidence do we need to see before the Government sets new legal limits on pollution levels to protect the nation’s lung health?”
Worldwide, nine out of 10 people are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution. Around 90 per cent of deaths linked to air pollution happen in middle income and developing countries, the WHO report said. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, said: “Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalised people bear the brunt of the burden.”
Professor Kevin McConway, a statistics expert at the Open University, said while there was a need to tackle air pollution in richer cities such as London, the problem was far greater in other parts of the world.
Data from 2012 shows the UK death rate for air pollution was well below the European average, and only a fifth of that seen in India and a sixth of that in China.
Prof McConway said: “We must not be complacent about UK air pollution, but in global terms, things really aren’t at all bad here.” But James Thornton, Chief Executive of environmental law charity ClientEarth, said: “These new statistics show a worrying level of this dangerous air pollution across the country.”
The UK Government has already faced legal action over its failure to meet legal targets on another air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is yet to comment on the report.