DATE: 21 May 2019
EVENT: Panel debate and discussion: The Air That We Breathe
VENUE: Crossroads Women's Centre, Kentish Town, London NW5 2DX
Dee Searle introduced the evening's debate by providing a summary of Camden Greens' 2013 air pollution citizen science programme. That campaign provided some alarming results, showing that, apart from one small patch of grass in the middle of Hampstead Heath, the entire Borough of Camden exceeded the legal limits for air pollution by a long chalk. The campaign attracted considerable media and public attention so, four years on, Camden Greens decided to look at the issue again.
Since that 2013 campaign, when we were ahead of the curve in accurately measuring emissions locally, air quality has shot to the top of the news agenda. Technological research and development has advanced at a phenomenal rate. Matched by sharpened environmental focus, pollution has moved to a whole new level of knowledge and understanding. Time to talk to the top teams.
Camden Greens invited four of the best to map out what is happening at the coalface, so to speak. What we know and what we don't. What should we fear and what should be applauded? And what can we all now do to slow down killer emissions and speed up the recovery process.
Rachel Wrangham from Camden Air Action framed the debate in local perspective. Camden Council's Clean Air Action Plan is only valid for two years 2018-2020, and very few people are actually working on pollution. A major issue, restricting Camden's effectiveness, is that almost all particulates - 60%-85% are actually produced outside Camden and blown in over the borough. The council have remarkably few levers they can pull. Staff shortage is also an increasing problem, unscrupulous contractors flaunt the regulations, which the council is unable to enforce due to lack of personnel.
And it's not just CO2 emissions from motor traffic that cause problems. In fact, just 50% of Nitrogen Dioxide and 10% of Carbon Dioxide come from cars, buses and lorries. The remainder is produced from building emissions, old boilers, inadequate insulation and the rest. Camden Council's Clean Air Action Plan contains 116 different actions but no targets. So how effective can it possibly be?
During the Big Schools Project, it was discovered that the level of pollution in Hampstead was much higher than expected, due to an enormous daily school run. Due to the evidence collected, £250K was allocated to a Healthy School Streets project to fund 38 electric charging points. To date, it has resulted in three Healthy School Streets and four car bay conversions. At a cost of £250K??
This is simply not enough. We should instead say "no new Diesel permits from next year". Islington Council will make an intervention in every single school to deter driving. We need, and we must reduce the number of cars in London. We have no choice. There is no alternative.
Chin Nwokoro from Barts Hospital picked up on the importance of children's lung health, in some detail. He spoke about how "activism creeps up on you" and how, once you see, up close, the catastrophic damage our toxic air can cause to our health, you have no option but to push back hard, in everything you do.
Children's lung growth, or lung capacity increases till we're 18 years old, at which point it plateaus. When we are around 40 years old it starts to decrease. The point is that that detrimental childhood exposures can influence the plateau level from which your lung function begins to decline.
Healthy lungs in childhood grow better, providing a higher adult plateau with consequent effects on lung function longevity and ultimately life span.
The damaging health effects of carbon particulates start already in the womb and perhaps even before. London is a highly polluted area and there's nowhere you can go to get a breath of fresh air. However, if you move to a less polluted area lung decline does slow down quite rapidly.
As we already know, the worst emissions on the road come from Diesel engines. So determined was Chin to prove this, that he personally tested carbon particulates with a mobile test unit on his bike, as he cycled around London in the name of research!
Medical effects from breathing polluted air include asthma and pneumonia, but also less obvious effects such as DNA damage, premature ageing, preterm birth, altered metabolism and cardiovascular disease such as strokes and heart attacks. DNA damage can affect the unborn child, so parental pollution exposures can influence child health outcomes.
The Great Smog of London in 1952 saw 6,000 deaths in five days. We thought we'd fixed that, but we haven't. Today, around 40,000 people die each year in the UK from the effects of air pollution, 9,000 in London alone.
But because you can't see it, no one takes it seriously enough. Lung disease takes the lion's share of children's Emergency Department visits, with associated financial costs to society as a whole. We have to stop it.
Maudie Spurrier from Client Earth, foremost environmental law organisation, echoed Chin's air line "Air looks clean, but it's filthy!" People are just not aware of what they're breathing. Around 80% of pollutants in urban areas like London come from road transport, some particles are the width of a twentieth of a human hair. So we have no way of avoiding breathing them in.
And it's not simply a matter of public health, it's also a question of social justice – the most disadvantaged communities are usually those exposed to the most
toxic air, whilst also being the least likely to own a car and contribute to the problem.. A lot of data about the health impacts (e.g. hospital admissions, ambulance call-outs, premature births) is very hard to find. Government have failed to meet legal limits for nitrogen dioxide since 2010, so Client Earth have taken them to court and won three times.
Government have simply passed the responsibility on to local authorities. But local authorities don't have the funds, expertise and resources to cope with pollution levels. In Bath, North East Somerset, Greater Manchester and Bristol City the position is particularly worrisome. Little action is taking place there, just lots of talking. But there are hopeful signs elsewhere. Birmingham and Leeds will introduce a Clean Air Zone in 2019.
Central government needs to take responsibility for this situation, by introducing a national network of Clean Air Zones alongside help and support for people and businesses to switch to cleaner forms of transport.
Back in London, Conservative candidate for London Mayor Shaun Bailey plans to scrap Sadiq Khan's proposed expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), if elected. Until the ULEZ is expanded, existing hotspots in Outer and Greater London should be tackled, especially those around schools, hospitals and other vulnerable areas. However, we would like to see the ULEZ expanded to cover the whole of Greater London as soon as possible.
The Government have pledged to bring forward a new environment bill. But when? The proposed new environment watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, has no legal teeth and must be strengthened. New clean air laws should adopt legally binding WHO guideline levels for pollutants and the Right to Clean Air should be given statutory footing in domestic law, so that citizens and NGOs can take the government to court for failing to tackle air pollution.
Anneliese Allen-Norris from EDF International (Environmental Defense Fund) is an ethical lawyer. The charity has been established in the U.S. for some 50 years and has now opened up in Europe. They are currently working on the Environment Bill and the Breathe London campaign.
For the Breathe London campaign EDF have teamed up with Google cars, kitting the cars out with their air monitoring measuring equipment. The mobile nature of this method of measuring gives a much more accurate picture of air pollution in London, measuring, at the same time, the speed of cars, operation of traffic lights and other traffic movement externalities.
EDF also collaborate with low emission bus zone schemes and Healthy School Streets projects, including the King's College London wearable sensors programme in which school kids walking to and from school measure ambient air quality using sensors on their rucksacks. The aim is for this 12 month project of low cost monitoring to be rolled out to other cities.
This is not "science for the sake of it", but translates into action to change the principles we have in law. The method is unique in that it measures not just carbon monoxide but also nitrogen dioxide and ozone, so can isolate precisely whether pollution is coming from cars, construction sites or from some other source.
Apart from the thousands of deaths from air pollution, 100,000 more people, while they may not be dying, are nonetheless seriously impacted by breathing toxic air.
These initial introductions from the panel set the stage for an open debate with a knowledgeable audience. A vast range of topics was covered, ranging from EU thresholds set back in the noughties - "are they still adequate today, with the inclusion of eastern European countries?" to whether the HS2 bid had been totally transparent with their particle projections?
In response to a question about London's air pollution a thought provoking point was made by CN in connection with the crisis in east London around child Asthma. That area of London has seen six child deaths in recent times from asthma related conditions, so why isn't more being done, faster to improve the situation? "Evidence doesn't change policy, emotion does", was Chin's reply. In other words, moral outrage carries more clout with politicians than scientific fact. People vote.
Are electric buses as friendly as is claimed?
RW replied that el buses are certainly safer in themselves, however, until such time as all buses and vehicle traffic are replaced by electric modes of transport, any benefit is limited. Electric buses still stir up particulates left behind by other buses and cars, as evidenced by the, otherwise inexplicable, particulate spikes measured by pollution monitors when passed by electric buses.
Is pollution worse in winter or summer?
AAN quoted research by the Kings Fund, which showed a spike in pollution during otherwise low traffic winter weekends. The culprits? Wood burning stoves. Lots of factors play a part; rain, wind, inversion, warm and cold air. Using these tools you can actually forecast high pollution occurrences. Barcelona is a particularly good example of high pollution forecasting. The authorities offer reduced price tickets on public transport during such episodes, for example. There is no "safe level" of air pollution and we will never get to "zero", we all generate particulate matter, shedding skin cells for instance. We need to concentrate on what we can control.
What are the most effective actions we can now take?
RW: The problem is that many of the new 'Green' initiatives are in themselves causing problems. Biomass power stations contribute increasingly to emissions. We need to reduce our need for excessive heating of our buildings. Domestic insulation is crucial, example: Passivhaus. There are lots of contributory factors we can do little about, apart from collaborating with those, who create them. April's high pollution, for instance, was blown over from the continent, due to the excessive heat. Sunlight + energy creates ozone, itself a pollutant. Furthermore, London lies in a basin and we rely on air pollution being blown away from the city.
Are we doing enough to tackle the polluters?
MS thinks not. Germany has funnelled a quarter of a billion Euros into a clean air fund, in part being employed to enforce their regulations. The US prosecutes those, who violate the restrictions put in place to reduce pollution. In the UK, we do nothing. There is much talk, but little action. So enforcement relies on private prosecutions being brought and that's not good enough. In Germany courts can implement Diesel bans, in the UK courts can't do that, they can only tell government to do it - and then wait.
So do we need to go and bang on doors?
RW: The problem is: "which door do you bang on?". The UK authorities have clever ways to diffuse campaigns, making it practically impossible to get anywhere with any initiative.
CN: Other countries do so much better than the UK and that's a disgrace. Few children die from Asthma in Sweden for example, there are 11 times as many child deaths from Asthma in the UK.
AAN: A major issue is that in the UK there is no requirement for government to link pollution to health outcomes. Another way to obfuscate evidence.
RW: Locally, we are lobbying Camden to, at the very least, introduce a workplace parking levy. Why don't they implement one? Is it cowardice? Are they worried about the backlash?
MS: Nottingham has successfully introduced a workplace parking levy, which is why they don't need a Clean Air Zone!
We were just getting warmed up and could have passionately gone on for another two hours, so clearly a debate which will run and run.
DS thanked our exceptional panel for making the journey to Camden and providing our air pollution debate with their invaluable skills and expertise. Our future campaign efforts to make the air that we breathe worth breathing, will surely be much strengthened by the knowledge gained from this evening's debate.