Air pollution – very much in the news over the last week or so with parts of the UK experiencing levels to cause concern (see image London last week.) According to advice on the Defra website, anyone with lung or heart problems should, at times such as this, reduce strenuous physical exertion especially outdoors. Asthma sufferers and older people may also feel the impact of high pollution levels, as will anyone with colds or coughs. It didn’t sound all that serious, and depending on where you were in the country, you may not have noticed it. However dig a little deeper and some startling facts come to light.
Apparently the UK has failed to reduce levels of Nitrogen Oxide (NO 2)air pollution and in February the European Commission launched legal proceedings. The challenge it seems, is reducing air pollution targets near busy roads. A spokesman for the Commission stated that around 30,000 people in the UK die prematurely from problems associated with this ‘silent killer.’ That’s nearly 600 people a week! Cast around a little further and, according to the World Health Organisation, it is linked to 7 million deaths around the world as is the biggest environmental health risk we face. Oh yes and the legal proceedings for this failure could mean fines of £300m a year for the UK, not to mention the burden on the NHS which we all pay for.
So what exactly should we be doing? Dust blowing in from the Sahara is not generally something that we can control and is a natural process that does have a positive effect for oceans and forests, but what about other contributing factors? In the UK the problems occur when the dust combines with high levels of localised air pollutants which can cause irritation to the lungs.
The problem is not a new one – back in Victorian England there was a balance to be struck between industrial (and often dirty) growth which created jobs and the degradation of the environment (see image of pottery town Longton) . Anywhere that produced chemicals or metals experienced ‘noxious vapours’ that killed plants and animals and undermined the health of the local population. The question posed ‘filthy and waged or clean and poor?’ In 1874 the Alkali Act was introduced in an attempt to make manufacturers responsible for the control of such vapours but the courts were clear, industrialists should not be penalised as the result would be the loss and closure of business and the destruction of the towns. In addition as the poor became more prosperous they burned coal, as did the factories that employed them. This resulted in poor air quality and the deaths of many from respiratory diseases.
Today it is exposure to fine particulate matter (tiny particles of solid or liquid suspended in air) produced from fuel combustion, vehicles or from stationary sources such as power plants, industry, households or biomass burning so the problem still exists.
As with all things we look to government to fix and control it and we blame them when there’s a problem… however, how many of us habitually jump in the car to drive less than 2 minutes down the road? And who would think twice about jetting off for that well deserved holiday without worrying about the impact on the environment. We talk a lot about reducing our individual carbon footprint to help lessen climate change and many of the same things that cause global warming are also polluting the air we breathe.
We can all help.
The European Commission is tasked with issuing targets, our own government and local authorities have responsibilities but so do we. Low emission zones restrict certain ‘dirty’ vehicles but that tends to be larger cities and not the multitude of smaller towns. Ok the infrastructure for alternative travel may not be the best but… emissions from a lot of cars are one of the major pollutant factors…
So the next time you pick up your car keys think about the alternatives! And if you can walk or cycle rather than drive then do it – better for you, better for the kids and definitely better for the planet.
Save energy, save money, save our world.