Pollution caused by diesel engines may be responsible for causing thousands of early deaths each year, according to health experts.
The adverse health affects caused by diesel particulates in the atmosphere are likely to become a burden on the NHS to the tune of billions of pounds.
Official Government figures show that around 29,000 people died prematurely due to air pollution in 2008, and academics believe that diesel fuel burnt in vehicles is responsible for around one in four of these deaths.
Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King's College, told The Guardian: "We have walked blindly into a situation where we have a high percentage of diesels in the transport sector. All taxis and buses are diesel. From one in 10 private cars being diesel in 2000 it is now nearly half today. A lot of the minute particulate matter comes from diesels in cities. It is estimated that 50 per cent of the particulate matter in London is from transport and that diesel makes up about half of all the transport."
The number of diesel vehicles on the UK's roads has rocketed in recent years with motorists seduced by the potential for greater fuel economy and cheaper tax rates. It is only now that the health risk they pose is being understood, as new research shows that diesel particulates are linked to the development of cancers, as well as lung and heart disease.
"The predominate cause of death associated with air pollution appears to be cardiovascular disease. It's clear from some work that was done that acute exposure to high levels of air pollution may actually be able to trigger acute cardiac events in patients that are at risk of such, so it may bring forward the onset of a heart attack," said Jeremy Langrish, cardiology lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.
"From a heart point of view it is difficult not to draw a correlation with the similar effects that we see with cigarette smoke and on an organ-level these effects are very similar to the effects of smoking cigarettes, which we all recognise are bad for us."
Air quality levels have suffered recently, due to much of Britain being covered in a dangerous smog, when pollution from European cities mixed with dust blown up from the Sahara desert.
However, experts warn that is not a natural phenomenon, and estimate that only around 20 per cent of particles in the air would have come from the Sahara, with the rest the result of man-made pollution.