Why is it acceptable that air pollution kills thousands each year in the UK?

Nelson's Column during the Great Smog of 1952 ...

Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952 Original description: Nelson’s Column in December. Foggy Day in December 1952. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In December 1952, a combination of cold weather, high atmospheric pressure and windless conditions collected airborne pollutants to form a thick layer of smog over London.  Over the four days that the smog lasted, thousands died prematurely and tens of thousands were hospitalised for respiratory illness.  Action was needed and in 1956, the Clean Air Act was passed, the first comprehensive attempt to control smoke emissions from homes and industry in the UK.

Fast forward 60 years, and where are we?  Well, thousands die prematurely and tens of thousands are hospitalised each year as a result of air pollution in London.  Don’t be mistaken, the Clean Air Act has been a success – the big killer in the Great Smog of 1952 was sulphur dioxide from the burning of coal and this is no longer a significant problem in the UK.  The pollutants of concern now are nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, mainly from vehicle engines.  Various epidemiological and toxicological studies into the health effects of traffic-related air pollution have identified a range of effects including cardiopulmonary conditions, increased risk of non-allergic respiratory symptoms and disease, myocardial infarction, changes in the regulation of the nervous system and inflammatory responses. Further studies have identified an increased risk of various cancers such as lung cancer with prolonged exposure, adverse effects during pregnancy and a decrease in male fertility.

There is legislation in place to manage these pollutants.  The EU has set air quality limit values (expressed as ‘objectives’ in UK law, interestingly).  These limit values are based on empirical data about the effect the pollutants have on health – some pollutants have standards expressed as annual average concentrations due to the chronic way in which they affect health and others have standards expressed as 24-hour, one-hour or 15-minute average concentrations due to the acute way in which they affect health. Some pollutants have standards expressed in terms of both long-term and short-term concentrations, as they have the potential to cause both chronic and acute health effects.

The UK Government passes the responsibility for meeting the air quality objectives to local authorities.  Under the Environment Act 1995, local authorities are required to review and assess air quality. Where objectives are not predicted to be met, local authorities must declare the area as an Air Quality Management Area. In addition, local authorities are required to produce an Air Quality Action Plan which includes measures to improve air quality within the Air Quality Management Area.  But that’s as far as it goes.

In the UK, most large cities fail to meet the air quality objectives.  In some areas, such as in Brixton and Putney, both in London, the objectives are exceeded by a factor of three.  The result of this has been estimated at 50,000 premature deaths per year across the UK by a House of Commons Committee report. The Greater London Authority has also commissioned research which suggests that air pollution contributed to 4,267 premature deaths in London in 2008.

Clearly the system is not working.  With the Great Smog of 1952 providing a stark realisation that earlier legislation was not working (air quality legislation in the UK dates back to the Alkali Act 1863) and that death and disease on this scale was not acceptable, the Government of the day passed the Clean Air Act in 1956.  Faced with economic woes (sound familiar?), the Government (Conservative, led by Harold Macmillan) took action, albeit following severe pressure from back benchers.  They took bold, costly and effective steps to deal with the problem. So, faced with an air quality and mortality problem on a similar scale, what does our Conservative (and Liberal Democrat) Government of 2012 do?  According to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, “the Government is putting thousands of lives at risk by trying to water down EU air quality rules instead of prioritising action to cut pollution on UK roads.”  And rather than cutting pollution from UK roads, this Government, also faced with economic difficulties, chooses instead to spend £1 billion building more roads.

Why is this acceptable?

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my current home – sustainability

the flat i live in was built in 2006.  it has a number of features that mean it’s pretty energy efficient by nature of its design.  it has flats above and below and to either side, meaning there are only two surfaces of the ‘cuboid’ through which to lose significant amounts of heat.  it has big windows, but good double glazing.  the windows may well still be responsible for the biggest heat loss, but we get loads of natural light pouring in reducing the need for artificial lighting.  i’ve already mentioned the fantastic waterloo sunsets we get every evening.

http://photozou.jp/photo/show/262775/27916981

a real life waterloo sunset

the one thing i am surprised at is that the block of flats i live in has no natural gas supply for heating, hot water and cooking.  unfortunately this means everything is electric and therefore more carbon intensive.  to mitigate this i have chosen ecotricity as my electricity supplier.  the electricity i get is still just normal ‘grid’ electricity, the same as anyone else, but at least i know that the money i spend gets invested in clean forms of power like wind energy.
so with heating and lighting largely covered, there’s not a huge amount i can do in terms of big ticket energy savings.  our flat came with all white goods supplied, so we had no part in selecting energy and water efficient models.  in fairness, they were all A rated, so without going to great expense, there is no sense in replacing those.

as i’ve mentioned in a previous post, our location, in waterloo, central london, provides great access to public transport, with two tube stations and a multitude of bus routes on our doorstep.  for the five years we’ve lived here we haven’t had a car, nor have we had need of one.  and although we have great access to public transport, most of my journeys are on foot.  i can walk to work in 35 minutes, and the south bank, covent garden and the west end are all within easy walking distance for all my leisure and shopping needs.

looking across the thames to waterloo

looking across the thames to waterloo

my biggest sustainability failing, i have to admit, is recycling.  but i do have to apportion at least some of the blame to my waste collection authority, lambeth council.  when we first moved to this area, i was full of enthusiasm to recycle and even bought a special bin that hid nicely in a cupboard and yet helped us segregate materials.  the trouble was that we filled our council-provided recycling bags within a couple of days.  what then were we supposed to do with them?  according to the council, they were supposed to be put out on the street only every sunday evening, ahead of the collection early on monday morning.  but where is anyone living in a compact flat (as a good proportion of lambeth residents do) supposed to store bags of (recyclable) rubbish for days on end?  with non-recyclables, you just chuck each full bag in the wheelie bin outside as it becomes full but there was no such provision for recyclables.  this was the question i put to lambeth council and over four years later i have yet to get a response.

in perhaps another peculiar design move, my block of flats has a single water meter for all occupants, so we just pay for water prorated on the proportion of floor area wach flat occupies.  therefore there is little incentive to save on water becuase you have such little influence on the bill.  my household with three occupants having daily showers/baths will pay the same as a theoretical single man with an adversity to personal hygiene in the same size flat.  and regardless of financial incentive, apart from the basics such as turning taps off while toothbrushing and not spending overly long in the shower, we are restricted in other potential savings.  we have no direct access to our cistern as it integrated in to the bathroom behind some tiles.  when replacing heating elements in our hot water boiler, the plumber noted that it is possibly oversized for even the three of us.  with limited resources and a potential house move on the horizon that is not something i would consider replacing, even with something more efficient.

in terms of sustainability, i believe that the aspects discussed above are all that i have within my direct control for my current home.  there are others down the supply chain, particularly in areas such as food, clothing and technology, where i might be able to exert some choice or even influence, and that is undoubtedly an area i will be exploring in more detail in future posts, but my influence there is limted as an individual consumer.  other aspects are completely outside my scope.  biodiversity, for example, because i neither own nor have any sort of stake in any outdoor space.  but outdoor space is a requirement for my future home, so this, and other aspects will form part of the agenda!

smart sustainable home

what is a smart sustainable home?  there are clearly two aspects to this.  taking the smart part first, there is an emerging trend for integrating technology in the home, with lighting and media controls integrated and much, much more.  take a look at this video on bbc news for microsoft’s take on this.

what about a sustainable home?  this is something that has been growing steadily for years, particularly in the last decade with an increasing number of people improving their homes’ energy efficiency and even generating electricity at home.

to some, a smart sustainable home must sound counter-intuitive, and there are inevitably some conflicts.  more tech around the home must mean more energy use for one.  and then there are the other aspects of sustainability.  much tech is made in countries where abuse of labour is known to occur – look at the recent reports of abuse at factories supplying apple (i’m sure they’re not alone in this). economically there are also aspects to be considered, not least whether i can afford any of this!

so plenty of challenges ahead.  right now i’m trying to buy a house and i’ve got plans for that place which i will be looking into in this blog.