Breathing can kill you
In London people are becoming more aware of the devastating effect of air pollution. Finally, it looks like the government is trying to do something about it. I joined a local group as they were trying to provoke change.
We all know how poor the air quality in certain cities in China and India is. But I include myself when I state that most people aren't aware European metropoles struggle with the same problem. Granted, in London it's on a completely different scale than in Zabol in Iran, the world's most polluted city1. Here in London a shocking 9500 people die every year because of air pollution2. This makes me wonder how serious the situation must be in countries which struggle with levels of pollution nearly twenty times higher than recommended by the WHO.
A first warning is the WHO World Health Statistic 2017 which shows that worldwide air pollution has killed about 3 million people3. In the UK, the mortality rate is higher than in Mexico and the US with 25.7 victims of air pollution dying for every 100,000 citizens. In London it comes down to two key pollutants, fine particulates known as PM2.5s and the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2).“4 Research suggests that our lungs are heavily affected by NO2 which is emitted by Diesel cars, lorries and busses. The public has only just started to be aware of its effects and to campaign for cleaner air for their children. As a study found, children growing up in the city have ten percent less lung capacity and may have lost it forever.5
The longer I've lived here, the more did I feel the effects of air pollution and I tried to find out more about it. I joined a local Friends of The Earth group in Hammersmith and Fulham and was surprised to hear that they were doing their own research. They had ordered eight diffusion tubes to measure air pollution directly from Friends of the Earth and placed them mostly near busy roads in the borough. These clean air kits are available for the general public and include the analysis at a lab. The results were shocking. In six out of eight cases the moderated readings were above the EU legal limit of 40ug of NO2 per cubic metre. At one bus stop it got as high as 115.55ug per cubic metre.
My group coordinator informed the council and they put her in touch with Elizabeth Fonseca who has the main responsibility for air pollution at the council. She wasn't surprised and expressed her hope that future measures will make a positive difference. Hammersmith and Fulham have said before that they are trying to be the greenest borough in London. They will introduce a clean bus corridor with electric busses. Moreover, Friends of the Earth was asked to take part in the consultations on air pollution. It was interesting for me to see the direct, measurable impact of air pollution on a local level.
More diffusion tubes have been ordered and their results will be added to a map of air pollution created in conjunction with experts at King’s College London. This map will help build a comprehensive picture of air pollution in the UK and will increase awareness of its dreadful effects.6
As I watched the news on BBC, I noticed that it is a topic the whole of London is becoming more aware of. The newly elected Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has promised to clean up London's air. In his manifesto he stated that he wants “to be the Mayor who makes London one of the world’s greenest cities.“7 That is ambituous given its current state. His newest campaign is all about banning Diesel cars from London's streets. These vehicles are blamed for NO2 levels above EU annual average legal limits. That's why the T-charge and the Ultra Low Emissions Zone are coming. From October there will be an additional £10 charge on Diesel cars to drive into the city. Critics protest because in the early 2000s car owners were encouraged to buy Diesel cars as they were thought to be more environmentally friendly. Low-income families who got one of these cars could get under pressure if they are faced with additional charges and a future ban. Therefore, it is said that a “fully funded Diesle scrappage fund“ 8as Sadiq Khan put it, is needed. This money will help people to get rid of their dirty Diesel car and to replace it with a greener alternative.
Over the course of the year, I have learned a lot about air pollution and it gives me hope to see that things are changing. For example, the London Evening Standard has started to publish the daily air pollution forecast and the figures for nitrogen dioxide and particle pollution from the day before. It is a free newspaper and its readership is said to be nearly 2 million people per day9. As part of its “Clean London“ investigation there are regular reports on air pollution and the Mayor's campaigns as well. For the paper, air pollution is monitored at eight different places all over London.. They then publish the figures for all to see. Normally the level of pollution doesn't get higher than the WHO maximum exposure guidelines. (source: London Evening Standard)
Nonetheless, there is reason for concern. Last year, just one of the eight annual average concentrations was as high as the WHO recommends.10 The WHO suggests that the concentration of PM2.5 shouldn't exceed 10 micrograms per cubic metre11. The busiest road in London, Marylebone Road was well above that figure in 2016. I read an interview with someone who said that he has learned to hold his breath whenever he is near the road12. Interestingly, the level of pollution drops off significantly the further away you are from the source such as a car. So stepping away from the traffic does make a difference. Avoiding the busiest roads and using side streets are only two ways to minimise the pollution you're exposed to. But only if people know about the devastating effects it has on them and their children, they will call for action and follow advice.
Unfortunately living in a metropole like London means that your health is at risk. Now the government has finally started to deal with the health crisis. Previously it was announced that there would be a ban on the sale of new Diesel cars and petrol cars from 2040. It's not quite as easy. There were warnings that the electricity infrastructure isn't advanced enough to support the change. Also the automobile industry will need time to adjust to the new rules. Unfortunately we have everything but time. With climate change happening and people dying every single day from air pollution there is no alternative. We have to act now and even if things seem impossible we have no choice but to think outside the box to come up with solutions.
8London Evening Standard, 26.07.17, „We need action to tackle diesle cars now“ by Nicholas Cecil
10London Evening Standard, 2016 averages