AIR pollution will continue to kill hundreds of people every year in the North-East for at least another decade, the Government has admitted.

Ministers had predicted that European limits on deadly nitrogen dioxide – mainly from vehicle exhausts – would be achieved in the biggest urban areas by 2020.

But officials are now warning that people in Teesside and Tyneside will be exposed to dangerous levels of the gas for a further five years.

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Meanwhile, separate figures put the current number of “excess deaths” from nitrogen dioxide and other particulate gases across the region at 1,273 every year.

They include significant numbers of deaths in Teesside, in Stockton-on-Tees (77), Middlesbrough (68), Redcar and Cleveland (61), Darlington (47) and Hartlepool (43).

However, the highest number of people die annually in County Durham (223), followed by Sunderland (143) and Newcastle (124) and Gateshead (99).

Three years ago, the department for the environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) predicted that nitrogen dioxide targets would be hit in Teesside and Tyneside in this decade.

Its assessment read: “The annual limit value is likely to be exceeded in 2010 and in 2015 but achieved by 2020.”

However, revised estimates buried on Defra's website have put back that target until 2025 - blaming the delay on higher-than-expected emissions from diesel cars.

Diesel has replaced petrol in many cars – because it produces less carbon dioxide, blamed for climate change - but emissions of nitrogen dioxide are higher.

To the Government’s embarrassment, the original deadline set by the European Union for meeting the limits was 2010.

Jenny Bates, of Friends of the Earth, said: “Failure to meet air pollution limits in our major cities would have serious impacts on the health of thousands of people.

“These air quality rules should already have been met. Government and councils must make this issue an urgent priority and end this scandal.

“Rapid steps to ban the dirtiest vehicles and cut traffic levels must be taken - and road-building plans that will simply add to the problem should be abandoned.”

The EU’s air quality directive sets a limit of no more than 40 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre of air that we breathe, as an annual average.

But, according to the Defra figures, that figure will be 69 in Teesside in 2015 (Tyneside 68), falling to 47, in 2020 (Tyneside 46) and – finally – to 38, in 2025 (Tyneside 36).

The European Court of Justice will rule by the end of the year on what action Britain needs to take.

A Defra spokesman said: “As our understanding of nitrogen dioxide evolves this must be reflected in our projections, which is why we have revised these figures.

“Work is under way to ensure compliance with EU limits in the shortest possible time.”

Number of annual 'attributable deaths' throughout region (age 25-plus)

  • County Durham 223
  • Darlington 47
  • Gateshead 99
  • Hartlepool 43
  • Middlesbrough 68
  • Newcastle 124
  • Redcar & Cleveland 61
  • South Tyneside 84
  • Stockton-on-Tees 77
  • Sunderland 143
  • Craven 24
  • Hambleton 34
  • Harrogate 68
  • Richmondshire 17
  • Ryedale 23
  • Scarborough 56
  • York 82
  • Total 1,273