Mon, Mar 25, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Deadly air in our cities: the invisible killer

Traffic pollution is putting our children at risk. Meet the campaigners — many of them concerned mothers — fighting back

by Tim Smedley  /  The Guardian

Chinese women wearing protective masks walk in April last year on the street during a polluted day in Beijing, China.

Photo: EPA

“In the winter you can taste and smell the pollution,” says Kylie ap Garth, drinking coffee in a cafe in Hackney, east London. “My eldest is eight and he has asthma. Being outside, he would have a tight chest and cough. I just assumed it was the cold weather. I didn’t realize there was a link to the cars.”

She is not exaggerating. The main road from Bethnal Green tube station is clogged with traffic, the smell of diesel fumes mixing with smoke from barbecue grill restaurants and construction dust. Anyone trying to escape from the roadside to the canal towpath finds only that the fumes are swapped with coal smoke from the canal boats.

“I hadn’t made the connection before either,” says Shazia Ali.

“I’m from Birmingham and have lived near main roads all my life. It was leaded petrol that was supposed to be the major thing. I can’t remember people talking about diesel fumes. Then, in 2015, I became pregnant with my third child, my husband and oldest child were diagnosed with asthma and I read about the Exhale study. Suddenly air pollution came onto my family’s radar.”


The Exhale (Exploration of Health and Lungs in the Environment) study tested the lung volume of eight and nine-year-old children in more than 25 schools in east London, and the findings were shocking. As a result of the high levels of traffic pollution, the children’s lung capacity had been stunted. Ian Mudway, a respiratory toxicologist at King’s College London, said at the time: “The data show that traffic pollution stops children’s lungs growing properly by eight-to-nine-years-old, children from the most polluted areas have 5 to 10 percent less lung capacity and they may never get that back.”

In fact, that research was merely the latest in a long line of studies around the world that had reached the same conclusion: children living near busy roads grew up with stunted lungs. The Californian Children’s Health Study, ongoing since 1993, measures the lung function of thousands of schoolchildren over five-to-seven-year periods. Living within a third of a mile from a motorway was associated with a 2 percent reduction in lung capacity. In particular, exposure to NO (nitrogen dioxide, a gas that comes from vehicle fumes and boilers) and PM2.5 (tiny particles suspended in the air) damages our lungs and can even enter our bloodstream.

The effects can be devastating, and we are only just beginning to discover their true extent. Last week scientists put the number of early deaths caused worldwide by air pollution at double previous estimates: 8.8 million a year, according to research published in the European Heart Journal, meaning toxic air is killing more people than tobacco smoking.


In 2014, like ap Garth and Ali, I didn’t know much about air pollution. I had just become a father when, living in London at the time, an Evening Standard headline caught my eye: Oxford Street had the worst diesel pollution in the world. This came as a surprise: the shopping street where I took my daughter to pick out her first pram had some of the most polluted air on Earth.

Where were the health warnings, the public information signs, the protesters marching? All I could see were happy, oblivious shoppers.

Weeks later came another headline: “Oxford Street pollution levels breached EU annual limit just four days into 2015.”

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