‘We can all make small changes to improve the quality of the air we breathe’

BY Alison Bellamy

If you live near a main road, then chances are you will be breathing in noxious fumes from traffic.

And if you walk to school or work along that road, or drive along it in congested traffic, you will be also be taking in air pollution, which probably exceeds recommended levels.

We all worry about problems with health, finance and the usual trials of life, but perhaps it is the unseen things we should really be concerned about, warn experts.

Air pollution is reaching dangerously high levels, both inside and outside the home and is affecting the health and lives of thousands of people in the UK. But there are small steps we can take to improve the quality of the air we breathe.

The latest report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has named 40 towns and cities for breaching safety levels for air pollution. It said poor air quality is a major cause of disease and death – increasing the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma.

Six out of ten of the most polluted cities in the world are in India but the WHO’s latest data shows that 11 urban areas across the UK breached the safe limit set for one type known as PM10. The top 10 included Glasgow, Scunthorpe, Leeds, Eastbourne, Salford, London, Southampton and Birmingham.

Greenpeace says that air pollution is responsible for cutting short 40,000 lives every year in the UK and it has also been found that there is a link to poor brain development in children.

And for those living on or near a busy main road, particularly on a hill, the risk is perhaps higher. Cities such as London, and in the north Manchester, Leeds, York and parts of Bradford, have been named as being at a higher risk, due to increasingly high volumes of traffic.

Dr James Tate, lecturer at the Institute for Transport Studies, at the University of Leeds, told Asian Sunday that air

Dr James State, University of Leeds
Dr James Tate, University of Leeds

pollution was indeed a problem for the average family in the UK. He said: “We are massively exceeding air quality levels in the UK. London is currently at double an acceptable level and in Yorkshire; cities like Leeds, York and parts of Bradford are 10 to 20 per cent over acceptable levels.

“In cities and larger towns, where there is a high volume of traffic, levels are of course worse. If you live near a main road, and particularly a hill, with buildings or houses at each side, then a barrier or a tunnel effect without the roof is created, where the particles do not disperse as well, and pollution levels are higher for longer.”

Dr Tate said as cities expand the background levels on side streets are almost as bad as the busy roads, as emissions accumulate.

He said thanks to technology, the collection of useful data had much improved: “Data is now being analysed by people who are able to use digital mapping and can link information such as postcodes, schools, prescriptions, GPs and other personal details to give a clearer picture of how air pollution affects us.

“We are linking up with a data collection project called Born In Bradford, as some parts of Bradford have high levels of air pollution. We hope it will unlock new understanding as to how big an impact air pollution is having on our health and lives. We hope to see some interesting information emerge.”

It was another recent report assessing the impact of air pollution on public health in the UK which has prompted more concerns. The report, published by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, (RCPCH) presents recommendations to the public, businesses and governments to make changes and reduce air pollution.

The report concludes exposure to pollutants both inside and outside the home may be contributing to thousands more deaths than previously estimated. In 2008 it was estimated that long-term exposure to outdoor air pollution caused 29,000 deaths across the UK each year, but the latest review says the figure is now around 40,000.

Air pollution has been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia and problems with brain development and cognition (thinking ability).

Dr Tate advises that small changes can make a huge difference to people who live on a busy road. He said if families walk to school down that road, to try and alter the walking route to a side street or quieter path.

“We can make small changes to improve the quality of air we breathe. Even a few metres away from the main road, pollution levels drop massively, a cleaner area is not too far away. It does not have to necessarily be the countryside, just a few metres away from a busy road can be ten times less air pollution,” said Dr Tate.

The programme leader for MSc transport, planning and environment studies, added: “Ironically, driving in a car in rush hour or slow congested traffic is much worse. You are sitting in a line behind another vehicle and breathing in the exhaust emissions. Driving at quieter times is better, driving in congested traffic is simply not good for you,” he added.

Dr Tate welcomed the use of electric vehicles, particularly buses, saying he hoped that cities would be using them within the next decade.

When asked if he could see people wearing face masks to protect them against harmful emissions Dr Tate said masks were necessary in places like Beijing, due to industrial pollutants but that it would not necessarily help prevent air pollution here in the UK, adding: “Face masks can only strip out particles in the air, not the noxious gases we breathe in.”

Professor Jonathan Grigg, from the RCPCH, called on the government to monitor exposure to air pollution more effectively.

“We also ask the public to consider ways of reducing their own contribution to air pollution by taking simple measures such as using public transport, walking and cycling, and not choosing to drive high-polluting vehicles,” he said.

The report on air pollution urges that real change will only occur when everyone accepts this responsibility, and makes a concerted effort.

The Royal College of Physicians recommends six steps you can take to tackle the problem of air pollution:

  • Be aware of the air quality where you live
  • Replace old gas appliances in your home
  • Ensure you have an energy-efficient home
  • Alter how you travel. Take the active travel option: bus, train, walking and cycling
  • Talk to your MP
  • Harness technology to stay informed and monitor air pollution effectively.

Greenpeace calls for clean air action plan

Environmental charity Greenpeace has a petition calling for a ‘clean air action plan’. The petition states: “Air pollution in the UK is responsible for cutting short 40,000 lives every year. It’s now a public health crisis, where children, the elderly and the most vulnerable people in our society are most affected by dangerous and toxic air.

“There isn’t a technological barrier stopping us from breathing cleaner air, we have the science and the tech know-how to put a stop to this crisis, what’s stopping us is lack of action from our politicians.”

A spokesman for Greenpeace said: “We desperately need a clean air action plan to save thousands of lives every year.
“We all need to get from A to B, to go to work, to take our children to school. But we shouldn’t have to breathe toxic air in order to do so.” More at www.greenpeace.org.uk

Six of most polluted cities in word are in India

A World Health Organisation report published in May, suggests that six of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are in India

The report, which contains data from 795 cities in 67 countries between 2008 and 2013, shows Indian cities have some of the highest concentrations of particulate pollution, which can cause fatal damage to the heart and lungs.

According to the WHO, air pollution is currently the greatest environmental risk to public health and causes about 3 million premature deaths globally every year.

Six Indian cities – Gwalior, Allahabad, Patna, Raipur, Ludhiana, and Delhi – rank among the most polluted cities in the world.