Clean Air Day 2018 (Thursday 21st June) is an opportunity to consider the effect air pollution is having on our health.
The South West Air Quality Conference in Taunton last week was attended by speakers from DEFRA, Public Health England, UWE & Local Government including and tackled important issues such as:
- What is the scale of the problem of air pollution in the UK?
- Why must those most disadvantaged in society have to breathe the most polluted air?
- What can central and local government do to make the air we breathe safer?
The root causes of air pollution are multi-faceted and many of the solutions proposed at the conference will require support and collaboration across all political positions and organisations.
What causes air pollution?
Diesel and fumes pollution (a mixture of lead, NOx, particulate matter and sulphur dioxide) emitted from HGVs, light vans, trucks and cars, plus ammonia pollution from agricultural processes are the most significant causes of air pollution.
Smoke and fumes from wood burning stoves also cause particulate matter pollution (probably in excess of 30%). So significant is the effect of these stoves (over a million have been sold in the past 5 years) that the phenomenon has reversed a prior trend of falling pollution in many areas and is a real cause for concern at government and local authority level.
A social justice issue?
A lower socioeconomic status is generally associated with poorer health, according to evidence published by the Royal College of Physicians, The Lancet Commission, The European Environment Agency and COMEAP (Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants). Part of the reason for this is chronic lifelong exposure to airborne pollution such as nitrogen dioxide (NOx) and particulate matter (also known as particulate pollution – a mixture of very small particles and liquid droplets that, if inhaled, can potentially cause or worsen serious illness including lung disease and heart disease).
The social injustice of air pollution can be illustrated by the housing market and measuring people's willingness to pay for housing. People who are relatively affluent are generally not prepared to pay for housing that is negatively affected by noise, traffic or by pollution. The most densely populated housing tends to be lower value and lower quality, in areas subject to high pollution such as near major roads, railways and heavy industry.
Senior Research Fellow at UWE Dr Jo Barnes describes a “Quadruple Jeopardy Effect”: a low socioeconomic status interacts with increased susceptibility to disease, which interacts with higher exposure to pollutants and all interact with particularly vulnerable groups such as the very young, the chronically ill and the very old who bear the heaviest burden of cardiovascular, respiratory and even cognitive disease and stunted growth.
Evidence also suggests that the more affluent in society generate more pollution, particularly from car ownership and car use, though there is also some evidence regarding the harmful effect of second hand cars.
How will things change in the future?
There is clearly political will and momentum to change things both at national and local level with measures such as:
- Reducing the number of cars;
- Reducing car dependency;
- Encouraging clean energy and energy efficiency;
- Tackling the sources of pollution emission at source by education, town planning, regulation and monitoring.
According to Ola Lapado of DEFRA, the government sees air pollution as the fourth biggest threat to public health after cancer, obesity and heart disease.
At a local level there is a determined will to improve our city centres and roads. Various studies have shown that the issue of clean air has dramatically risen in public consciousness. Counsellors facing election are very aware of the public perception that our air is unacceptably polluted and something must be done. The South West Air Quality Conference discussed the respective benefits of filtered permeability in city centres (allowing some types of vehicle but not others), congestion charging or total pedestrianisation. Different solutions will be right for different locations.
Action has already been taken on the M4 at Newport and Port Talbot in the South West, with a 50mph speed restriction aiming to reduce pollution. In Leeds, plans have recently been announced for a ‘clean air zone’ in the city centre, including charges for high polluting vehicles, as the council looks to reduce emissions.
If the commitments already made by government are kept, we will save a billion euros each year to 2020 and 2.5 billion euros a year thereafter. Far more importantly, tens of thousands of people, particularly vulnerable people, will live much longer, healthier lives.Back to Blog