When pop star Justin Bieber collapsed last week at the O2 arena in London and was taken to a private clinic feeling “short of breath” and needing oxygen, the rumors started flying that he had had an asthma attack. They were denied by his management, but it would have been understandable if he had. Most of last week, London’s air was heavily polluted, with many of the capital’s pollution monitors recording “high” nitrogen dioxide levels as an acute photochemical smog of fumes and microscopic particles (PM) of acids, chemicals, metals and dust drifted in from the continent, mixed with London diesel exhaust, and then became trapped in the still, dry air.
Only a few kilometers from the O2, Rosalind Dalton had also been feeling short of breath and needed her steroid inhaler. She is also a singer, who has been in operatic societies since she was 15, but she says she cannot hold the long phrases these days. She lives near the Woolwich flyover, where a gray, 1m high air pollution monitoring box on a slip road to a busy road regularly shows pollution well over the legal limit. Recently she was diagnosed with a long-term lung condition, even though neither she nor her family have ever smoked.
“The air pollution has been bad in the last few weeks. On one occasion I set off to walk to Sainsbury’s [supermarket] and turned back because I was having symptoms,” she said.
Meanwhile, Malachi Chadwick found himself wheezing just months after he moved in 2009 from York to London to work with climate change group 10:10. He cycles about 60km a week in the city and his doctor has diagnosed asthma — almost certainly aggravated by air pollution.
“The air quality of the two cities is noticeably different. When you bike you get [air pollution] full in the face,” he said.
The last few weeks have been stressful for many of the 5.4 million people, including 1.1 million children, who are receiving treatment for asthma and for the tens of thousands of others with respiratory diseases.
Since Christmas last year, there have been four major air pollution episodes, stretching from London to Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, Dundee and Glasgow. A pollution monitor in Downpatrick in Northern Ireland registered 10, the highest possible level of nitrogen dioxide. On March 3, the department of the environment advised people to reduce or avoid strenuous activity and Matthew Pencharz, the mayor of London’s environment adviser, said it would be “sensible” for children to be kept away from playgrounds during smog episodes.
Ian Mudway, a lecturer in respiratory toxicology with the environmental research group at King’s College London university, has spent several years walking the routes that children take to school in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, measuring the pollutants in the air they breathe and determining their impacts on their respiratory health.
He is shocked at the levels of pollutants these children are exposed to on a daily basis and fears for the permanent damage being done to their lungs by the ultra-fine particles and gases emitted by diesel engines.
East London has long been heavily polluted by industry, but the borough of Tower Hamlets has some of the busiest roads in Britain passing close to large, high-density housing estates. Nowhere in the borough is further than 500m from a busy road and new housing developments targeted at young families are popping up next to main roads.