Text Size

Current Size: 100%

Clearing the Air

In this guest blog, author Tim Smedley talks about his new book, Clearing the Air: the Beginning and the End of Air Pollution, and why we need to urgently tackle the air quality crisis affecting our towns and cities.

"When I started researching Clearing the Airmy book about air pollution, published today, I had a pretty open mind about where the pollution came from. I had a vague knowledge that industrial fumes or pollution blowing over from the continent would be the biggest causes. However, it quickly became apparent that the pollution we are most exposed to, and is killing the most people, comes from one source alone: transport.

In a 1972 conservation handbook, New Battle of Britain (my reading became quite niche!), the author, H.F. Wallis, fires a warning flare from history: ‘Los Angeles-type ‘smog’ – caused by the action of sunlight on petrol fumes – is possible in Britain,’ he wrote. ‘New cars on our roads will still be able to poison the air… and, of course, there will be many more of them.’ Wallis also noted that between 1957 and 1967 ‘the British Rail passenger network slumped from 14,622 miles to just under 10,000 miles,’ while a fifth of bus services disappeared.

People had no choice but to switch to private cars. In 1950, there were around 35 million cars in the entire world. Today, there are almost as many in the UK alone.

This was by no means a UK phenomenon. Los Angeles in the 1930s was known for its electric streetcars (trams), with 1,500 miles of track. But, as in London, they were ripped up to make way for the onslaught of the automobile. US author Dr Devra Davis writes that, in 1954, ‘huge bonfires were lit as kerosene-soaked streetcars and electric trains that formerly served Hollywood were burned.’ It’s an apt image for the death of electric transport and the rise of traffic fumes.

We are only now starting to realise the damage this caused to our health. In 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that outdoor air pollution caused over three million deaths worldwide; by 2018, the WHO revised this up to 4.2 million. More recently, two separate papers in major international health journals (the latest published earlier this month in the European Heart Journal) suggest annual deaths from outdoor air pollution of 8.79 million and 8.9 million, respectively. Double the WHO estimate, and higher even than annual deaths from smoking (7.2 million).

Much of these deaths are due to the internal combustion engine or, more specifically, the extent to which we allowed the internal combustion engine into to our daily lives. The two air pollutants that wreak the most damage to our health, PM2.5 (tiny particles suspended in the air) and NO2 (nitrogen dioxide), account for around nine out of every ten deaths from air pollution. And in towns and cities, the places that we live and work (and breathe) the main sources of both these pollutants are transport. The pie chart below shows how the majority of PM2.5 in London comes from road transport and even larger proportion if you include rail, river and aviation transport.


Source: London Environment Strategy, Greater London Authority, p33

The known health effects of this include the EXHALE study findings in 2011, it showed how the lungs of eight and nine year old children in London are being stunted by five to ten per cen due to proximity to these fumes. The Californian Children’s Health Study has found much the same since 1993.

Fortunately, there is another, cleaner path we can take. Earlier this month, Public Health England released a 263-page review of air quality interventions, calling for councils to introduce more low emissions zones, ‘spatial planning’ around schools and hospitals, congestion charging, the promotion of public transport, cycling and use of electric vehicles.

There are plenty of examples of successful interventions happening already. The School Streets scheme in Hackney is turning the roads immediately adjacent to five pilot schools into bus and bicycle-only zones. The London ULEZ, beginning in April, is expected to reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide by 45 per cent in its first year alone. Madrid is hoping to do one better, with a ‘zero emissions zone’. While the Paris Crit’ Air scheme is slowly phasing out old cars and diesel with a windscreen sticker scheme. The Crit’ Air 5 ban, from July 2017, removed only three per cent of vehicles, but reduced NOx by 15 per cent and PM2.5 by 11 per cent.

Children growing up in towns and cities could do so alongside roads of electric vehicles, cycle lanes and electric rail, and breathe air almost entirely devoid of the pollution we take for granted today. Cleaner air leads to a healthier, happier, economically more productive world. I’ve seen it begin to happen. My hope is that Clearing the Air can inspire people to achieve this in their city, town or village too."

By guest blogger Tim Smedley

Enter our competition for a chance to win one of two copies of Tim's bookClearing the Air: the Beginning and the End of Air Pollution, published by Bloomsbury Sigma today.