A Global Village
Issue 3 » Energy & Environment

Breathe

Campaigning for Clean Air in London

Simon Birkett, Clean Air in London

‘Unlimited and free access to clean air of an acceptable quality is a fundamental human necessity and right’ and ‘an unequal distribution of health risks over the population raises concerns of environmental justice and equity’ 
WHO Europe, June 2004

Air pollution in London is much worse than most of us have realised. It averages well over twice legal limits and WHO guidelines near our busiest streets. Furthermore, the Campaign for Clean Air in London has shown that air pollution has been responsible for thousands of undisclosed premature deaths in London and across the UK.

Clean Air in London’s (CAL’s) mission is to achieve urgently and sustainably at least World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended standards of air quality throughout London. Its immediate priority is to see health-based air quality laws complied with in full each year up to the London 2012 Olympics (and thereafter).

There are three main types of hazardous pollutants in ambient air:
Particulate matter comprises very fine particles from dust, tyre and brake wear and black smoke from vehicles;
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is formed in most combustion processes;
Tropospheric ozone gas (O3) is a greenhouse gas also formed by combustion.
Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is no longer seen as a health risk in London. 

Concentrations of NO2 are typically correlated with those of particulate matter (PM) although the latter is increased if there is greater local use of diesel-powered vehicles (predominantly trucks and commercial vehicles). PM is classified by diameter as ultrafine (PM1.0), fine (PM2.5), coarse (PM2.5-10) and PM10 (with the last, for example, including particles up to 10 microns in diameter). The finest particulate matter is thought to be the most deadly since it travels furthest into the bloodstream and the body.

WHO guidelines typically include annual and short-term (hourly for NO2 and daily for PM10) mean exposure levels to protect human health. There is no safe level for PM. European Union (EU) legal limits, based on WHO guidelines, for NO2 exposure levels are set at annual and hourly legal limits of 40 μg/m3 and 18 exceedences (number of hours for which limit is exceeded) respectively. Yet in the 2010 calendar year, annual mean concentrations of NO2 in Brompton Road, Kings Road and Marylebone Road were over double these levels, see map.

Evidence from the summer smogs of 2003 and 2006 suggests that air quality will deteriorate as climate change causes warming unless additional mitigation action is taken that anticipates this rising trend.

Diesel Fumes
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has said that road transport was responsible for 79% of PM10 emissions in central London and around 80% of PM2.5 emissions in London as a whole in 2008 and 41% of emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) in London as a whole in 2008.

Emissions from diesel engines are a particular problem. Empirical evidence published by the government suggests that, like for like, diesel engines for passenger cars may produce 17 times as much particulate matter and 83% more NOx emissions than petrol cars for a carbon dioxide reduction of 4% or less. Diesel vehicles with Pre-Euro 1 engines (1992 emissions standards) may produce more than five times as much particulate matter as diesel vehicles with Euro 4 engines (2005 standards).

The other main sources of harmful emissions include power stations, domestic natural gas, quarrying, construction and (outside London) agriculture. The proliferation of festival bonfires has also recently been recognised as a cause of more frequent air quality problems.

Government Failings or ‘Cover-Up‘
CAL has shown that the previous government was responsible for one of the biggest public health failings or ‘cover-ups’ by a government in modern history.

For years we had been told there were 1,031 premature deaths due to air pollution in London in 2005 and some 12,000 to 24,000 per annum nationally. Research showed these estimates related to short-term exposure with the former due to PM10 and the range comprising 8,100 from PM10, 3,500 from SO2 and 700 to 12,500 from O3.

It was very odd though that the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency and others had published estimates attributable to long-term exposure to PM2.5 while the UK had not. With much help, CAL calculated there were 3,460 such deaths in London and 35,000 nationally in 2005.

Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee accepted these estimates saying: ‘Air quality must be given a higher priority for government. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) must raise the profile of the issue by publicising the latest data on premature deaths more widely and making clear the benefits of improving air quality’. The Mayor of London and the new government have subsequently published estimates of 4,267 premature deaths in London and 29,000 nationally in 2008 attributable to long-term exposure to PM2.5.

To put the above numbers in context, compare them to the 230 people who died in London in the same period from road traffic accidents and the 617 people nationally annually who are estimated to have died prematurely from workplace related passive smoking before the legislation came into force. Each person dying prematurely due to poor air quality in London may do so up to nine years early.

During London’s summer smog episode in August 2003 there were a total of between 46 and 212 premature deaths from O3 and 85 from PM10. London’s summer smog episode in July 2006 was likely to have resulted in a similar or greater number of premature deaths from O3 and a slightly lower number for PM10. These numbers should be of great concern to those planning for the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in 2012.

In summary, air pollution has been linked to cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary events as well as asthma, cancers and other health effects. Increasing obesity may make people more vulnerable to air pollution. The young and old are most vulnerable to poor air quality.

Get on Your Bike
We need mitigation and adaptation to tackle air pollution whether poor air quality or climate change related. Mitigation means walking or cycling or using public transport rather than driving (particularly diesel vehicles) where possible to reduce air pollution for yourself and others. Adaptation includes walking or cycling down side streets rather than busy arterial roads.

Solutions are split into two main categories:
Non-traffic measures: such as complying with the Best Practice Guidance on Demolition and Construction published jointly by the London Boroughs and the Mayor of London. Other measures needed include action to control the impact of biomass burning and micro-generation and the proliferation of festival bonfires; and
Traffic related measures: which can be split further into fewer and smaller vehicles and cleaner vehicles. It is simplest to consider two overlapping circles: one for measures to reduce congestion and one to reduce harmful emissions.

CAL has shown the
previous government 
was responsible for 
one of the biggest 
failings or ‘cover-ups’ 
by a government in 
modern history

Measures to reduce congestion include road pricing and those to reduce harmful emissions include low emission zones (LEZs). The former can reduce emissions since vehicles travelling at 20 mph are roughly half as polluting as those travelling at 5 mph. The latter can reduce congestion by excluding some vehicles. Germany, for example, had some 40 inner city LEZ’s in place by the end of 2009 with Berlin saying its LEZ has been the single most successful measure to improve air quality in the city. Measures to promote walking, cycling and the use of public transport clearly reduce both congestion and emissions.

CAL considers key solutions for London should include: the abatement of harmful emissions from buses and taxis; a Berlin style LEZ in inner London and around Heathrow; a boiler scrappage scheme; and a massive campaign to build public understanding of the dangers of poor air quality with advice on mitigation and adaptation. CAL is concerned that the Mayor’s focus on buying hybrid buses may distract from the need to comply (cheaply) with air quality laws in the short-term (e.g. through the fitting of selective catalytic reduction devices to buses) and put infrastructure in place for a sustainable long-term solution (e.g. electric vehicles).

It is clear that successive governments have continued to hope for some ‘silver bullet’ to solve air quality problems (e.g. technology solutions such as tighter emission standards for vehicles) while it is clear the cheapest and most successful solutions will require bold political action and behavioural change.

Fresh Air in Sight?
The scale and urgency of the challenge requires radical and urgent action to reduce air pollution. But if we succeed, we will show the world (and London) how to tackle air pollution and sustainability issues more widely.

Simon Birkett is Founder and Director of Clean Air in London which runs a cross-party campaign to achieve urgently and sustainably at least World Health Organisation recommended standards of air quality throughout London.

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