Air pollution in the United Kingdom has been illegally high since 2010, leading to the premature deaths of 23,500 people each year, according to the European Union’s environmental body.
The situation has become so bad that a cross-party committee of politicians called it a public health emergency.
In particular, the country has extreme levels of nitrogen dioxide due to heavily congested roads in urban areas, according to the Guardian.
Now the country may face a fine of millions of euros after its dereliction was referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the Guardian reports.
If the UK doesn’t rapidly improve its air quality plans, the ECJ is expected to issue a fine by the end of the year. Five other countries face similar charges — France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Romania.
“We have waited a long time and we cannot possibly wait any longer,” Karmenu Vella, European commissioner for environment, told the Guardian.
“We have said that this commission is one that protects,” she added. “Our decision follows through on that claim. It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale.”
The six countries had been given until Feb. 9 to clean up their air, and all six failed to develop “credible, effective, and timely measures to reduce pollution as soon as possible, as required under EU law,” a statement from the commission said, according to the Guardian.
Three other countries — Spain, Czech Republic, and Slovakia — had also been warned by the EU, but devised sufficient air management plans within the requested time frame.
Meanwhile, 26 of the EU’s 28 members are in violation of its clean air standards, although most have plans that will adequately improve air quality.
The UK’s initial plan had been challenged in court by the environmental watchdog ClientEarth, which has won three cases against the government.
“We are glad that, at last, the Commission is taking serious steps to fight air pollution before the Court of Justice,” ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei said in a press release.
“But it shouldn’t have taken so long,” he added. “Air pollution requires urgent action and it’s been clear for too many years that authorities all across Europe are failing to protect their people from illegal and harmful levels of air pollution.”
Establishing “clean air zones,” where cars are temporarily banned, is the most effective way to reduce nitrogen dioxide pollution in the city, according to the UK government’s own research.
In the past, the UK established voluntary car-free zones, but it may have to legally enforce the boundaries through to comply with EU law.
Even though the UK is leaving the EU through Brexit, the government may still be under the EU’s environmental jurisdiction, according to the Guardian.
Poor air quality is not unique to the UK or Europe. More than 90% of people around the world breathe dangerous levels of air pollution, according to the latest report on air quality by the World Health Organization.
Read More: These Are the Most Polluted Places in the UK
And this rampant pollution is prematurely killing 7 million people each year, according to WHO. As fine particles from pollutants fill the air, they penetrate the lungs and cause “stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, and respiratory infections, including pneumonia,” WHO notes.
Global Citizen campaigns on the United Nations’ Global Goals, which call on countries to pursue clean air quality. You can take action on this issue here.