Sun, Mar 24, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Waking up to a public health crisis

The UK’s air pollution is getting worse, with traffic fumes provoking increased instances of asthma and heart attacks. So why isn’t more being done about it?

By John Vidal  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Member of Parliament Joan Walley, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, despairs.

“It’s a scandal that the same number of people are dying of air pollution in London now as back in the 1950s. The Government needs to step in,” she said.

Faced with massive health costs, threatened with large fines for not complying with EU laws passed 13 years ago and warned last week by the UN WHO that exposure to nitrogen dioxide is harmful at far lower levels than the limits currently set by Europe, you might think that the government would act. However, Britain has spent nearly 15 years ignoring the problem, lobbying to extend timetables, working with other countries to weaken the rules and giving financial incentives for people to switch to the most polluting technologies.

British ministers admit they are breaking the laws, but claim it is not possible to meet the EU limits. London Mayor Boris Johnson has tried small-scale technology fixes like living walls of plants and dust suppressants, but these measures have been shown to be not nearly enough. Last week he proposed an “ultra-low emission zone,” which would ban all but the very lowest emission vehicles from central London during working hours. However, the measure would not come into force until 2020 and was widely dismissed as public relations.

The result of official inaction is that air pollution has barely improved in 20 years and legal limits for nitrogen dioxide are being regularly breached in most urban areas. Government does not expect EU targets to be met until 2025 in London and 2020 in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Glasgow, West Yorkshire, Teesside, the Potteries, Kingston Upon Hull, Southampton and seven other conurbations.

“It’s a disgrace the UK is failing so badly on air pollution — tens of thousands of people die every year. Action by the government to clean up our dirty air is too little too late — and road-building plans will simply make the situation worse,” Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates said.

One reason that it has been able to dodge the law is that modern air pollution is mostly invisible, colorless, odorless and tasteless, or comes in particles so small they can pas through masks. Sixty years ago you could practically cut the coal smoke belching from chimneys. It turned buildings and clothes black, damaged crops and gave people lasting diseases. When coal declined, the problem was assumed to have gone.

“We see the health impact today, but it’s difficult to take seriously because you cannot see it. The solutions involve closing roads and reducing traffic, so it’s very hard for most political parties to even imagine acting,” London Green Party assembly member Jenny Jones said.

These days air pollution comes largely from diesel engines. It can be best seen when fumes get trapped and a dull orange-grey smog develops. Technically, it is produced by sunlight reacting with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere. When sunlight hits these chemicals, they form airborne particles and the result is ground-level ozone or smog. Overall, diesel cars emit less hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and lead pollution than petrol cars, but produce more noxious gases and significantly more minute particles.

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