New research on UK pollution published by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and Lancet Countdown collaboration shows that out of 51 UK cities listed in the World Health Organization ambient air pollution database, 44 UK cities are in breach of the recommended World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for air quality.

WHO’s recommended limit value for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) is 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air. But in numerous UK cities and towns annual average levels are higher.

Glasgow has emerged as one of cities with the highest levels of PM2.5s in the country, with a concentration of 16 micrograms per cubic metre. The seaside town of Prestonpans in East Lothian also had high levels, with 12 micrograms per cubic metre – higher than in cities such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Inverness. London and Leeds both had 15 micrograms of the particles in every cubic metre-sized parcel of air, while Cardiff, Oxford and Birmingham had 14 and Manchester 13.

In addition, 13 out of the 51 UK cities in the WHO’s ambient air pollution database exceeded the WHO’s recommendation for PM10 of 20 micrograms per cubic metre. Glasgow again emerged as one of cities with the highest levels of PM10s, with 23 micrograms per cubic metre.

The authors acknowledged that European Union air quality guidelines were far less stringent than those of the WHO, with an upper safety limit for PM2.5s of 25 micrograms per cubic metre. However, they claim WHO limits represent a “safer threshold”.

The research notes the need for national action to tackle air quality. In 2016, along with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), the RCP estimated that ambient air pollution causes 40,000 premature deaths, over 6 million sick dates and an estimated social cost of £22.6 billion per year.

The Scottish government said Scotland was the first country in Europe to pass legislation based on WHO guidelines on safe levels of PM2.5s.

A spokesman added: "We recognise the link between air quality and public health, which is why we announced earlier this month that Glasgow will be the first city in Scotland to introduce a low emission zone by 2018.

"We are also working with local authorities to introduce low emission zones in each of our four biggest cities by 2020, and in all other air quality management areas where necessary by 2023."

In September, the Scottish government announced a target to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles in Scotland by 2032.