“Currently the latest estimate for the health impacts of air pollution is perhaps as many as 35-40,000 people are dying early each year because of the air that they breathe. In London that figure is 9,400… If the water that was coming out of the taps in Bristol was killing hundreds of Bristolians each year then I would guarantee you there would be an outcry.
“The people running the utility companies would be sacked and action would be taken. We need to frame air pollution in the same way and treat it as the emergency that it is.”
Dr Gary Fuller, an air pollution scientist at King’s College London, has been measuring air pollution for 25 years and recently published the book, The Invisible Killer – the rising global threat of air pollution and how we can fight back. He also sits on the government’s Air Quality Expert Group.
Air pollution seems to have rocketed from a little-known issue to dominating headlines as the ‘greatest public health crisis we face’. How did this happen?
“Since the mid-1990s our knowledge of air pollution has changed hugely,” Fuller says. “If you look at how our knowledge of health effects has evolved, we learned through things like the 1952 smog [when industrial smoke combined with unusual weather events] that acute, high concentrations of air pollution killed people – 12,000 people died in the London smog.”
In 1993, a seminal US study comparing the life outcomes of thousands of subjects across six cities changed the conversation and began looking at the impact of people’s exposure on a day to day basis.
In the last three to four years, mounting evidence now shows that not only does everyday exposure affect our health, but can cause life long harm: “That our children are exposed to or even the exposure before they were born might actually cause them some sort of life long impairment…
“In a study we’ve been doing in London, we’ve been looking at lung growth in children, and we’ve found the children living in the polluted areas are growing smaller lungs. That might cause problems later on in life.”
Another game changer was ‘dieselgate’ – the scandal of car manufacturers, discovered in 2014, manipulating emissions testing to produce much lower results in NO2 emissions than were emitted in real world conditions. The lawsuits are ongoing.
It’s not just about cars
But one thing Dr Fuller wants the public to understand is that air pollution is not just from traffic – because it’s not just nitrogen dioxide (NO2) we have to worry about. NO2 may dominate the headlines, but it’s also written into UK law that concentrations are reduced to below the thresholds set by the World Health Organisation. However, pollution thresholds for particulate matter were not adopted from the WHO.
“If we’d have followed WHO guidelines you would find that we would be debating PM2.5 probably more than we would be debating NO2,” says Dr Fuller. WHO thresholds are breached in most of southern England. The PM2.5 annual mean threshold is 10ug/m3. Bristol recorded 10ug/m3 in 2015, the most recent figures available. Not technically an exceedance.”
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This would change the conversation because the sources of PM2.5 are much more diverse, the largest primary source being the burning of solid fuels such as wood and coal. 39% of the PM2.5 emitted in the UK is from the home burning of solid fuel. Other sources are traffic and agriculture. PM pollution may also not originate in your city or even region – pollution from London or Paris could be what we are breathing in.
A global, and local problem
We know more and more about pollution and its frightening health impacts, but whose responsibility is it to rectify the situation?
“It’s not an easy problem to resolve and if it was, we’d have done it years ago. European-wide and national action needs to be taken to ensure that the products that are sold, cars and the rest, are inherently low polluting. Similarly, there is a huge role for local and national government to look at how we heat our homes, and the ways we travel.”
40% of journeys made by car in England and Wales are less than two miles. “There’s a huge opportunity.”
“Sadly, too much these days we are told that it’s the individual that has to change their behaviour. When air pollution is bad, we tell people who are asthmatic to avoid outdoor exercise. We don’t tell the people who run polluting factories or are distributing goods on diesel vehicles or driving their cars to change their behaviour. Clearly there is an injustice there.”
That’s not to say there aren’t useful things that people can do themselves: some studies have shown that just walking on a parallel route rather than on a busy road can half your exposure from traffic pollution. And there are plenty of examples of people taking action, from Extinction Rebellion to School Streets – the parents’ movement asking for zones around schools to be traffic-free and healthier during pick-up and drop-off times.
But what about the most contentious proposals for tackling traffic – congestion charging?
For Dr Fuller, it’s a question of framing. “In terms of making the case for Clean Air Zones, the association with charging was… an error. We don’t want to charge people to drive a dirty vehicle in the city, we want them to not drive the dirty vehicle in the first place. By presenting it as a charge, it obscures the whole purpose of the scheme.”
He also points to the clear investment in public transport in London immediately following the introduction of the congestion charge in 2003 – and the clear reduction in traffic in the centre.
Do they work? “Low emissions zones have been adopted in many, many European cities, although few in the UK, and the evidence says if they are strong enough, then yes they do work. Not every low emissions zone is particularly effective and the ones that aren’t effective are generally the ones that have a low level of ambition in the first place.”
Although its the measure that hogs the headlines, more positive measures are equally important, particularly encouraging people to walk or cycle: “That way we can tackle air pollution, climate change, urban noise as well as tackle chronic diseases from lack of activity in our everyday lives.”