Governments are beginning to wake up to the detrimental effects of air pollution on both the planet and the health of individuals. Flora Beverley and sustainability research assistant Hattie Webb ask if enough is being done to prevent further problems, or it is all just hot air?
Last year, when someone said the word pollution, it was widely associated with plastic. As ocean cleanups and plogging became common practice, the UK government legislated for certain single-use plastics to be banned in 2020 in a bid to control the problem. Yet the term pollution actually covers all contaminants in the environment which may cause harm and this can take the form of noise, light, chemicals or even heat, most of which we cannot see. With the turn of the decade, it’s time for public attention to shift to a less visible kind – hidden in the air that surrounds us.
For those living in cities, levels of toxic air pollution are especially high. While the pollution itself cannot be seen, the impacts are felt by all, shortening lives and being held responsible for a number of health problems. In the UK, pollution is a bigger killer than smoking, and costs the UK economy over £20bn per year.
The biggest culprits are nitrogen dioxide, emitted mainly by diesel vehicles, and PM2.5, a fine particulate matter linked to adverse respiratory health problems. In the EU the toxic air has been linked to more than 1000 premature deaths each day that have been directly associated with by PM2.5 – a figure which is 10 times higher than the number of deaths from traffic accidents. A recent study by King’s College found that adults living within 50 meters of a busy road parameter had an increased risk of lung cancer by 10% and children suffered from stunted lung growth by 3-14%. To put this in perspecitive, around a a third of Londoners (about three million people) are thought to live in these high-risk areas.
For those living in and around cities, inhalation of toxic air is unavoidable. In 2013, an inquiry into the death of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah attributed illegal levels of air pollution to her cause of death. Having lived just 25 metres from London’s South Circular Road in Lewisham – one of London’s most polluted areas at the time – Ella suffered from continued asthma and three years of seizures and hospital stays as a result. Her death was the first to be linked to air pollution, setting a precedent for future cases. Following an inquest into her daughter’s death, Ms Kissi-Debrah said “I believe this affects the wider public. We know more about air pollution and the impact on health. It’s not going to bring my daughter back but we hope it will save future lives”.
Work is being done, however, to reduce the amount of pollution affecting people who live in cities. A coalition of 15 health and environment NGOs are calling for legal levels of particulate pollution to be reduced to the limits indicated by the World Health Organization by 2030. At the moment, current UK legal limits for PM2.5 are more than double this.
One of the issues with maintaining healthy air quality is that whilst many countries do have limits and legislations in place, enforcement is often poor. Levels of nitrogen dioxide have been illegally high in most urban areas since 2010. Beth Gardiner, author of Choked: The age of air pollution and the fight for a cleaner future, believes that “we are having the wrong conversation about air pollution. Instead of talking about what individual cities or mayors are doing, we need to ask why our national politicians have not stepped up to address this danger.” While Gardiner acknowledges the efforts of local governments to implement low emission zones, she ultimately believes that “the root of our pollution mess is a continent-wide failure of enforcement.”
The damage is not limited to those directly breathing the pollution either. A study carried out in China found that women living in areas of high pollution were 50% more likely to experience a miscarriage in their first trimester. But does this mean we should all move out of cities? Dr Patrick O’Brien, a consultant obstetrician and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, suggests that women in the UK should not be alarmed, but should take precautions where possible. According to Dr O’Brien, “exposure to some level of air pollution is unavoidable in day-to-day life and more research is required in this area on the impact to foetal development. We advise that where possible women seek to minimise their exposure to air pollution and make lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking.”
So, how are we able to protect ourselves and the planet from air pollution?
Take the scenic route
Choose lesser polluted routes when walking, running or cycling around cities. “Choosing to walk or cycle on a quiet road instead of a busy one can sharply reduce the amount of pollution you take in. Even using a parallel road one block over from a traffic-clogged one makes a big difference” says Gardiner. If you’re looking to run or cycle around London, consider downloading Clean Air Run Club on your phone to score routes by air quality.
Use public transport
Although particulate pollution in tube lines is up to 30 times higher than roadside, Prof Frank Kelly, chair of Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), encourages people to continue to use the tube given the relatively short time spent underground and lack of evidence of harmful effects. Using public transport also helps to reduce the fumes expelled by cars, cleaning the air above ground that we breathe for the rest of the day.
Keep your heating healthy
Eliminate wood burners and fireplace usage. It has been suggested that our cosy indoor wood fires actually emit more particles per hour than a diesel truck.
Clean up your energy
Switch to clean energy sources and aim to conserve energy at home and work. Switching to a renewable energy supplier can help to reduce the burning of fossil fuels and the consequent carbon dioxide and methane that is released into the atmosphere upon burning.
For real change to be seen, governments need to prioritise pollution and the planet, and now is the time to pressure them. Lucy Harbor, founder of Clean Air 4 Schools and director of environmental consultancy Cool World Consulting, advised that “putting pressure on your local politicians and MP to prioritise improving air quality is a good idea. Groups such as Client Earth’s Clean Air Parents Network provide emails and tools to help you do this”.
Only drive when absolutely necessary
Although it may seem as though you are protected from the worst of the fumes when in the car, pollution levels on the inside are usually significantly higher than directly outside on the street due to exhaust fumes being circulated around the enclosed space. As Lucy explains, “many people still think of the car as a protective bubble that will get them somewhere safely. But it’s actually often a toxic bubble of fumes – not only does it pollute the road, it also pollutes you!”
Fortunately, progress is being made. A review of existing research in 2019 suggested that reducing pollution even temporarily (for example traffic restrictions during the Extinction Rebellion protests, or throughout various Olympic Games) could cut deaths and hospital admissions within a matter of days or weeks. Therefore, putting high-cost measures in to place to reduce pollution levels in the worst affected areas could be immediately beneficial, as well as cost-effective.
Although around two million people in London are living with illegal levels of air pollution, nitrogen dioxide levels are falling and could reach legal levels within the next six years. In 2017, London saw its first breach of annual pollution levels just five days into the new year and in 2018 it occurred within a month. However, in 2019, this kind of breach didn’t occur until July, showing the rapidly improving metrics of air quality year on year. This suggests legal levels could be reached within the next 5 years, under enforced legislation within London. This legislation is critical and change cannot happen without it; if we look at the rate of reduction in NO2 levels across London between 2010 and 2016 for example (the period in which Boris Johnson stood as London’s mayor), a recent KCL study found that it would have taken a huge 193 years to reach legal levels.
At best, the reaction towards air pollution will follow that of plastic, with both individuals and governments continuing to raise awareness as to what is being done to tackle the situation. It is crucial that global governments begin to step up and reassess funding priorities. Pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe, it’s time something was done about it.