Air pollution: the hidden and neglected killer!

Now this is not my area of expertise but I thought I ought to raise at least the issue of air pollution in our cities, particularly outside of London. I have been following recently the impact of the EU Air Quality directives on the UK and the fact that at many sites in the UK levels exceed those laid out in the EU directives. This is mainly for NO2 and levels of diesel particulates (PM10’s). In London there is a lot of debate about the issue. There is a campaign called @cleanairlondon and there are environmental lawyers that have recently taken the UK Government to court and where very recently it was found by the Supreme Court that the UK Government was in breach.

I am concerned however that this debate is not happening outside of London. Now in terms of severity it seems London is the worse with predictions that is will not meet EU levels until 2025 however this shouldn’t make us complacent outside of London. It is predicted that it will take until 2020 for instance the West Midlands (and other) conurbation to be compliant. Ten years after it should have. This is being driven by the slow but steady switch away from petrol engines towards diesel. Diesel being more fuel efficient and lower in CO2 emissions but worse in these two other aspects. NO2 and PM10 are known to be carcinogenic/ have  significant other effects and this failure for levels to fall is a real health issue for urban areas in the UK. An article by London Assembly member Jenny Lambert points out that in the capital 600 schools expose pupils to excessive levels of these pollutants.

London Schools

So whilst the days of smoking tail pipes are long gone we need to dispel the myth that we have dealt with pollution and we have dealt with its health effects.

You may say that this is green scaremongering but this is based on solid research undertaken by Kings College in London. In a recent article (here) in the Guardian Dr Ian Mudway states

‘Air pollution, especially from diesel engines, is a “neglected, hidden killer” and children and old people are especially at risk. There’s strong evidence that if you live near main roads you will have smaller lungs,” he says. “They will not reach capacity and will be stunted. When, or if, people move to a cleaner environment they still do not recover the function they lost. We have good evidence that every child born in Tower Hamlets will have a reduction in the volume of their lungs by the age of eight. The point is, people die of lung disease later on. You store up a problem that will affect you later,” he says.

Research undertaken for the Greater London Authority  in 2008 indicated that  there were 4,267 premature deaths attributable to long-term exposure to small particles alone. Web page (here)

This research also points out the social equity aspects of this given that pollution levels are often highest in the most deprived areas of London. This is likely to be the case for most UK cities.

There are those that argue that we should be seeking to relax EU levels but to me the argument is even clearer that we need far more investment in public transport, cycling and walking. We need to consider, as London has already,  low emission zones elsewhere and at national level we need to look at the price signals that are being given to drivers who are switching to diesel and use them instead to promote other cleaner low carbon/ low pollution modes of travel. 

Looking ahead I am sure there will be a day when we look back and be amazed, as we now look back on the horse drawn era,  that we for so long drove around with millions of little fires to get us around our cities. Millions of little fires that no matter what we do we probably can’t eliminate the detrimental effects.  We will probably still need cars, but far fewer,  but they will have to be clean at the point of use and powered by low carbon/low pollution solutions.


One comment

  1. […] improving air quality as part of this strategy is vital. I have commented elsewhere in this blog (here) on the health consequences of current transportation modes and it is clear this is one area where […]

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