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

We had sleepwalked into a public health crisis. And not just in the UK, but across the world. The 2015 smog in Beijing was so bad that it was dubbed the “Airpocalypse.” Pictures circulated on social media of Beijing students sitting their exams so couched in smog that they could barely see the neighboring table. The toxic smog that covers Delhi every Diwali now lasts for months at a time.

Eventually, in the summer of 2016, my young family and I left London and moved to semi-rural Oxfordshire. I felt the relief of escape. I could breathe easy. The first time my daughter went out into our new garden at night, she asked what all the lights in the sky were. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was no longer an abstract concept. But I also felt a sense of defeat. Had I taken the easy way out? Shouldn’t I have stayed and fought for change?


Parents who did just that include Jemima Hartshorn and Phoebe Quayle. In April 2017 Hartshorn founded a group called Mums for Lungs while she was on maternity leave and living in Brixton. She formed a core group of 10 volunteers, including Quayle, plus a legion of footsoldiers handing out flyers across London.

Mums for Lungs campaigned for the Ultra Low Emission Zone (the ULEZ, which will begin on April 8), to replace diesel buses with hybrid or EV, to improve walking and cycling infrastructure and spread awareness — not just about traffic but household log burners, too.

When I speak to Quayle on the phone, she is pushing her toddler in a buggy near the South Circular road, south London.

“If you walk around here in the evenings it’s like walking through a bonfire,” she says. “A friend of mine has a [pollution] monitor in their house. They have a stove that they rarely use, so they lit it for an experiment [and] the monitor went mental, and it wasn’t even in the same room But people get defensive, like ‘how dare you say I can’t have a wood-burning stove?’”

She feels that the enforcement of existing clean air laws is sorely lacking.

“It’s kind of outrageous that it takes a small group of campaigning mums to be left to tell residents about this. We need a massive public health campaign.”

In Hackney, ap Garth and Ali have also been taking matters into their own hands. Ali runs a volunteer organization called I Like Clean Air, while ap Garth campaigns for safer streets around the schools in her area. Last summer, as a result of her work, her son’s primary school became one of five to pilot school street zones. A school street turns the roads around a school into bus-and-bicycle-only areas during drop-off and pick-up times. The idea began in Edinburgh in 2015 and has since spread to a handful of schools in London and Birmingham.

After we finish our coffee, I join ap Garth on the school run. It is not yet 3pm but already the roads are noticeably quiet. The school street being trialed here runs from 8:30am to 9:15am and 3:15pm to 4pm, with a longer restriction on the road immediately in front of the school gate from 7am to 10am and 3pm to 7pm.

“This road used to be incredibly different,” says ap Garth. “At pick-up time, traffic would be backed up all along this road and nearby roads. The traffic would be all the way down.”

Today, by contrast, feels like a bank holiday — not a typical Tuesday in March.

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