I can't breathe easy: the state of London's air

Returning from a lunchtime run through one of London’s great green spaces, red faced and seriously sweaty, a chorus of concerned colleagues gasp in horror. It’s not my potent post-exercise odour or too-tight leggings upsetting them, but the fact I’ve been out running in what is often described as “the biggest public health emergency of a generation”.

It started in January 2017, when Sadiq Khan warned Londoners to avoid physical exertion while out in the city during a high air quality alert. Since then, the mayor has used this alert system seven times and the situation has gotten somewhat smoggier.

Research released in October revealed every man, woman, child and non-binary in London is breathing air exceeding World Health Organisation limits of the toxic particle MP2.5. Almost 95 per cent of London’s population live in areas exceeding the limit by over 50 per cent. Unsurprisingly, there are serious health implications: increased likelihood of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Other big culprits are nitrogen dioxide – a nasty pollutant with the antisocial tendency to inflame lungs and up the risk of things like asthma and lung cancer. And carbon monoxide – a colourless, odourless but nevertheless poisonous gas given off by cars. Ground level ozone, particulates, sulpher dioxide, hydrocarbons and lead aren't great either.  

According to the Royal College of Physicians, “Each year in the UK, around 40, 000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution”. Health problems like asthma, certain cancers, heart disease and even dementia, which are a direct result of filthy air, cost the government over £20 billion a year, not to mention the cost of lives.

WHAT’S THE CAUSE?

Quelle bloody surprise, cars are a big culprit: according to a 2015 survey, a total 9.4 million car trips are made in London every day: one third of which travel less than 2km and could be walked in up to 25 minutes…

But cars aren’t the only ones to blame: we have the potent cocktail of traffic fumes, construction, break wear and still air to thank for our polluted city – made all the more toxic by our penchant for wood burning stoves during the winter months. Despite only 5 percent of households owning one, up to a third of all London’s fine-particle pollution comes from wood burning. Earlier this year during a particularly cold spell, it contributed half to toxic emissions in some areas.

WHAT’S BEING DONE?

  • Air-quality audits are being undertaken in fifty schools. Once completed, recommendations such as greener infrastructure – i.e. bushes along roads to help filter fumes and changes to road systems will be implemented.
  • A £10 “Toxicity Charge” on top of congestion charge was rolled out in October for London’s most polluting vehicles. The T-Charge applies to petrol vehicles registered before 2006.
  • An Ultra-Low Emission Zone, within the same area as the congestion charging zone will come into force in 2019. This means most vehicles will need to meet exhaust emission standards or pay a charge.
  • A campaign for a new Clean Air Act has been launched by a cohort of organisations including Greenpeace and Sustrans – calling for new legislation to reduce air pollution.

WHAT CAN I DO?

First of all: it’s not about apportioning blame. We’re all in this together. We all drive cars and take the tube and order things from amazon and enjoy the warmth of a roaring fire. We’ve gotten ourselves into this mess and we need to get ourselves out of it. Here are some big and little things we can all do:

  • Plant trees and install green walls. Is there a more refreshing sight than a glorious vertical garden amidst the grey buildings? But more than just looking lovely – vegetation helps to offset pollutants and chemicals – improving the atmosphere all round.
  • Ditch the wood burner and put on a jumper. A roaring fire is about one of the most comforting symbols of the season, except in environmental terms they’re something of a disaster. Sadiq Khan has written to Michael Gove stating he'd like to ban wood-burning stoves – of which there are 1.5 million across the country.
  • Get a bike! Cut your CO2 emissions altogether and cycle to work.
  • If in doubt, walk. One third of car journeys in London traverse less than 2km and could be walked in up to 25 minutes… 
  • Join Bluecity – sometimes you do just need to drive a car. Although in its early days, Bluecity is a genius idea – the same concept as Borris biking – you can pick up an electric car from a charging station, then end your journey by returning it to any other charging station. 
Sarah Barratt