Air pollution: What they are not telling us about the smog


Apart from Saharan sand, this week’s air pollution is nothing new – it is just that the Government usually keeps quiet about Britain’s highly contaminated air

Suddenly we are all hearing about air pollution. More than three and a half million especially vulnerable people, with heart and lung conditions, were advised to “avoid strenuous activity” yesterday as levels of tiny but dangerous particles in the air reached the maximum level on the Government’s official scale. Even relatively healthy people were advised to “reduce physical exertion”.

Air pollution What they are not telling us about the smog

Scores of flights were cancelled because of smog, and red dust – swept up from the Sahara and carried by the winds – settled on cars and windows as the scale reached 10 out of 10 in some parts of the country. The crisis led news bulletins and, as mild hysteria took hold, it was even widely described as the worst air pollution to hit England for more than 60 years, since the Great Smog of 1952 killed more than 4,000 people in London over a single weekend.

That is frankly ludicrous. There is nothing particularly special about this week’s pollution, apart from the exotic element added by the Sahara sand mixing in with our usual home brew – and the fact that we know about it.

Indeed, London and South East England suffered a worse air pollution “episode” just last month, but we knew little of what happened. Tellingly, it took place at the same time as the widely publicised incident in Paris, where cars with even number plates were banned from the streets and free public transport was provided to try to persuade people to leave their vehicles – and their belching exhausts – at home.

On March 8 and 9, and again from March 12 to 15, levels of the particulates – minuscule bits of soot – measured in Bloomsbury Square rivalled those at Paris’s Pompidou Centre. During the second of those periods, they actually reached their highest levels in London for two years, far outpacing anything seen so far this week. Yet while Britons were well informed about the pollution in France – and about similar conditions in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – they remained largely ignorant that much the same contaminated air was being breathed at home.

That, of course, was mainly because the Government did not go out of its way to tell them, even though it officially accepts that the particulates kill tens of thousands of Britons every year. That is entirely in keeping with the practice of successive governments in recent years, who have consistently put public relations before public health in this area.

High levels of air pollution occur in Britain, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) admits, about five times a year. But the last time it issued a major public alert, according to Client Earth, an environmental law group that has successfully taken ministers to court over the pollution, was two years ago.

The time before that was in April 2011, and the one before that in 2008. Both the Coalition and its Labour predecessor are to blame. Indeed, high pollution levels that would normally have warranted a warning blighted the spring week of 2009 when Gordon Brown hosted the G20 summit, one of the buttresses of his claim to have “saved” the world economy: environmentalists strongly suspect that they were hushed up to save him embarrassment.

This time, too, no formal public alert was given, no press release issued. As on other occasions, Defra did emit tweets, while especially vulnerable people received warnings by text message.

It is not entirely clear why the present pollution has, unusually, received such enormous public attention. One reason may be that the Saharan sand made it especially visible and caught the public imagination – and also gave Whitehall something to blame besides their own failure to clean up emissions at home. Another is likely to be that on Tuesday the Met Office took over the responsibility for providing the Government with pollution forecasts, and enabled Defra to put much more information on its website for those that sought it.

All the same, a survey by the Liberal Democrats found that fewer than 20 of the 935 London schools and nurseries sited within 150 yards of a busy road are aware of a text service that provides free daily air pollution forecasts for the capital. And though 80 per cent of schools say they are concerned about the effects of poor air on their children’s health, only one in 20 head teachers report receiving any official information about pollution over the last year.

This is no trivial issue. Just last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that air pollution kills seven million people worldwide every year – making it the cause of one in every eight deaths. While most of these take place in developing countries, where the problem is at its worst, hundreds of thousands are believed to occur in Europe each year.

The particulates – just one of the two most dangerous contaminants – are officially estimated to kill 29,000 Britons annually, which is more than obesity and alcohol combined, and 10 times more than those killed on the roads. The Government’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution has suggested that they may play a part in another 200,000 fatalities. No one has produced similar figures for the other big danger, nitrogen dioxide, but a major study across 25 cities has reckoned that living near major urban roads could account for 30 per cent of all asthmas in children.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Dr Maria Neira, a top WHO official last week. And last October studies of some 74,000 births in 12 European countries, including Britain, concluded that babies in polluted areas were more likely to have low birthweight and a smaller head circumference.

Vehicles are the main culprits, contributing half the nitrogen dioxide and 80 per cent of the particulates in London air. Diesel ones – officially encouraged because they emit slightly less carbon dioxide than their petrol-driven counterparts – are especially to blame. A report by Policy Exchange, the Prime Minister’s favourite think tank, has concluded that they emit no less than 91 per cent of the particulates and 95 per cent of the nitrogen dioxide that comes from exhausts.

Successive governments have shamefully neglected the problem. London, for example, is the European capital most polluted by nitrogen dioxide. And though Britain agreed to bring it down to safe levels by 2010, the Government admits this will not be achieved until 2025. The European Commission launched legal action against it in February, citing “16 zones across the UK” including the South East, Greater Manchester, the East Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside, and Glasgow.

Ministers have responded, however, by seeking to water down the EU rules. And they also appeared to try to disguise the problem – until prevented from doing so by public opposition last year – by stopping the routine use of hundreds of pollution monitoring stations run by local authorities across the country.

Nor does Boris Johnson have a great record. The Mayor of London scrapped the westwards extension of the congestion charging zone, which would have reduced pollution. He delayed for 15 months pollution controls on vans and minibuses. And he embarked on a futile attempt to “glue” particulates from exhausts to the ground by spraying dust suppressants.

But recently he seems to have had at least the beginnings of a change of heart. Last year he removed an exemption for low-carbon diesel cars from the congestion charge. And in February he promised to establish the world’s first big-city “ultra-low emission zone” in London, outlining a “vision” where almost all the vehicles running in the city centre during working hours would emit little, or no, pollution.

The details have to be worked out, but it is a start. Is it too much to hope that this week’s furore, however overhyped, may spur a wider clean-up?

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