Air pollution was to blame for one in 18 deaths among people in Essex, new data has revealed.

Public Health England figures show an estimated 5.5 per cent of deaths of people aged 30 or over in the county in 2018 were down to pollution.

The data measures deaths associated with long-term exposure to tiny particles known as PM2.5, which have a diameter about 3 per cent of the width of a human hair.

Vehicle emissions are a major source of the deadly dust, ash and soot which is also produced by industrial processes and the burning of fuels for heating.

Repeated exposure to the particles can trigger chronic diseases such as asthma, heart disease or bronchitis and cause other respiratory problems.

The percentage of deaths in Essex was slightly higher than the 5.2 per cent average for England.

The latest data comes after a study by charity Centre for Cities found 88 deaths in Colchester in 2017 could be attributed to air pollution.

Friends of the Earth has called for new legally enforceable reduction targets.

Jenny Bates, a campaigner for the environmental charity, said: “These levels of the most health-damaging air pollution are an absolute disgrace.

“Every year, UK air pollution causes nearly 36,000 early deaths and billions of pounds in costs to the economy. The Government must get a grip on this health crisis.”

David Renard, the Local Government Association’s transport spokesman, said councils have introduced a range of measures to tackle air pollution, such as clean air zones, encouraging the use of electric vehicles with recharging points, and promoting cycling.

But he warned that any air quality plans need proper funding and local flexibility to be successful.

A Public Health England spokeswoman said poor air quality can particularly affect individuals who are more vulnerable to harm including those with heart and lung disease, children and the elderly.

She added: “Improving air quality is crucial to reducing the health impacts of air pollution and helping people live longer, healthier lives.”