Of all the scenarios humans have put themselves in over the years, the bastardisation of the natural world is the most perilous. The effect of greenhouse gases is often referred to as a temperature issue and the resulting consequences, but there is a far more immediate threat arising from our chemical infatuation. Synonymous with low-hanging city smog, the pollutants responsible for global warming not only clog up the atmosphere above our heads but mingle at ground level amidst the oxygen we breathe.
Air pollution is one of the most immediate environmental problems that humans are facing today, yet it has been consigned to the back-benches of ecological attention. Far less titillating than extreme weather events, grand innovations, or publicised green campaigns by governments and corporations, airborne toxins are seen as a vague, unquantifiable side note floating around city skyscrapers in the story of the planet vs the people. But as the primary contributing factor in the death of 7 million people worldwide each year, invisible noxious gases play a crucial, if not silent, role in the deadly repercussions of human activity.
Identified as a build-up of toxic substances in ground-level air that poses a health risk, air pollution has naturally occurred on the planet for billions of years from biological sources like volcanoes and ecosystems. But like most circumstances the world faces today, the impact of humans has exasperated the situation to unmanageable levels. Effluence from human activities like fossil fuel burning, agriculture, and construction, even indoor pollutants like printer inks and cleaning agents all produce hazardous levels of compounds that enter the breathed environment. Nitrogen dioxide, sulphur, ozone, and particulates belched from these activities sit inside the airways, organs and blood, increasing rates of asthma, lung cancer and cardiovascular conditions.
This isn’t the worst we’ve had it. Until the 1980s, coal was the primary energy source, regurgitating soot and sulphur into the surrounding areas where it was burned. Described as ‘the suburbs of hells, rather than an assembly of rational creatures’ by 17th-century writer Sir John Evelyn, London was plagued for centuries by a black blanket of fog. In 1952, the Great Smog covered the city with a haze so thick it stopped cars, trains, and public events. Hovering over the city for four days, the result of industrial coal burning and windless weather killed 12’000 people from intoxication. During the decade, cities around the world faced hazy disasters of their own, in Pennsylvania, Poza Rica in Mexico, New York, and again in London four years later. The frequency and rising death toll of air pollution soon certified it as a public health issue, which led to the introduction of Clean Air Acts in the UK and America in the years following.
Such authoritative measures led people to believe the threat of air pollution was now a distant memory. But as less sooty coal, cleaner policies, and innovative technologies led to different sources of energy, they also introduced new hazards into the atmosphere. As coal began to be phased out in the 1970s, natural gas and oil launched the threat of ozone, carbon monoxide, and airborne lead particles from lead-based petrol. Once the lead was removed, and catalytic converters made emissions cleaner, the concerns have since been replaced with particle pollution and nitrogen dioxide predominantly from diesel transport. Added to the chemical invasion indoors from fittings, furnishings, temperature regulators, and cooking, far from a distant and historical issue — air pollution is the invisible threat floating around us at every moment of the day.
Statistics estimate 7 million deaths worldwide are as a result of air pollution; up to 200’000 in America, half a million in Europe, and 40’000 in the UK. Air pollution is not yet identifiable enough to be listed on a death certificate as the cause of death, but like a car crash, that’s not to say it didn’t cause the conditions that led to death. These figures don’t mean we can identify any of the individuals killed by air pollution each year, rather it is a way of statistically representing the numbers of years of life lost because of air pollution. Life-shortening conditions attributed to toxic air, from particulates in the airways that can onset asthma, aggravation of lung and heart conditions, and generally lowering health contributes to the total number of years cut off from life expectancy that would be reached if it weren’t for these conditions. But some scientists suggest that though air pollution clearly manifests conditions that are not healthy, you cannot rule out other significant lifestyle variables like diet, exercise and drugs that contribute to an untimely demise.
However, there is clear evidence that the consequences of an unhealthy breathing environment are costing society. Across a lifetime, exposure to fine particles, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants has health impacts that significantly affect the quality of life. Even in the womb, contaminants can put a foetus at risk by compromising vital organs development, particularly in the lungs. The toxic assault on the respiratory systems continues through childhood, by suppressing lung development and increasing the likelihood of the onset of asthma, with children who live in areas with high levels of pollution like cities being up to four times more likely to have compromised lung function as adults. In adulthood, air pollutants speed up the decline of respiratory performance and have been linked to heart disease and strokes. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified air pollution as a carcinogen, and diabetes, dementia and even obesity have all been earmarked as suspected symptoms. Due to the consequences of airborne toxins, people are forced to miss school and work and are estimated to cost industry and the health service over £20 billion per year in unworked days and treatment.
Despite challenges to the exact number of deaths from air pollution, translating the effects of air pollution into numbers helps policymakers quantify the health risks with the economic cost of action, or inaction. Globally, governments recognise the impact of air pollution and have implemented a wide variety of initiatives to curb its effects. The European Commission, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency and various other authoritative bodies have concluded that further measures to control air pollution are economically justified. Limits on emissions, congestion charges, high taxes for less economical vehicles, low emissions zones, and plans to stop the selling of diesel vehicles in the future are all part of the governmental hymn sheet to lower emissions and their associated effects. But like most environmental policies today, these are not enough.
Despite actions undertaken over the decades, air pollution remains a significant risk to health across the world. Neither the concentration limits set by national governments nor the World Health Organisation’s air quality guidelines define levels of exposure that are safe for the population, preferring to keep it just below ‘significant risk’. Of the set limits, many nations are in constant breach of the emissions allowed.
This year, the European Union has begun proceedings to prosecute the UK, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Romania for failing to protect their citizens from airborne pollutants. Over the past eight years, all six nations have been in breach of the Union’s agreed emissions limits, allowing illegally high levels of nitrogen dioxide to effuse through their cities. Since 2010, urban areas in the UK have been assaulted by dangerous levels of gases primarily from diesel emissions. But true to British procrastination style, the governments latest plan for Air Pollution Strategy in 2017 to ban diesel cars in 22 years time was condemned as “woefully inadequate” by other city leaders and “inexcusable” by doctors. This demonstrates a serious concern of what leaving the European Union may mean for the health of UK citizens, as ministers response to the suit was simply that they didn’t agree they had gone over the limit. If the UK becomes in charge of their own air pollution limits amongst other things, it seems unlikely we’ll set ourselves targets we can’t reach, putting levels of emissions higher than is humanly safe.
The recent story of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah who died in 2013 from a fatal asthma attack highlights the importance of lower emissions and pollutants. Ella lived in Lewisham, in an area just 80 foot from London’s South Circular Road, a pollution hotspot that is consistently in breach of the EU’s pollution levels. In the year leading up to her death, all but one of Ella’s hospital admissions for respiratory problems coincided with spikes in nitrogen dioxide and particulate levels in the area. Ella’s last asthma attack is the first death to be directly linked to air pollution.
Despite all of the facts, hospital admissions, deaths, and soot lining cars and windows, somehow burning fossil fuels are still allowed to occur in the most populated areas in the world. The Clean Air Acts of the last century and the onslaught of attempted mitigation measures, along with the unavoidable reality that current restraints no where near enough to protect citizens send a clear message that more needs to be done to prevent such levels of air pollution. Governments must act now to ensure the wellbeing and economic sustainability of society today and for future generations. Strict local and nationwide measures must be implemented how to prevent more detrimental consequences of unsustainable activities.
The good news is that mitigation measures for air pollution are inextricably sustainable measures for other environmental concerns. The greenhouse gases that damage the ozone layer, heat up the planet and cause a catalogue of environmental disasters share the same fossil fuel source as the toxic pollutants that float around at breathing level. Therefore, improved energy efficiency, conservation, and ultimately the substitution of fossil fuels in favour of cleaner and renewable energy will have benefits for the climate and air quality. Electric vehicles, powered by renewable sources, must become the standard, rather than just backing away from diesel. But, on the occasion that for any reason a government is reluctant to adjust the power supply swiftly, smaller measures can be taken. Higher taxes on the oldest and most polluting vehicles to encourage drivers to switch to more efficient cars. Go national with what some schools have been doing across the UK and dissuade parents from driving up to the school gate.
Above all else, nations should take a leaf out of less polluting nations books. Zurich has introduced strict regulations by fitting filters to all road vehicles since 2010, raising the cost of city parking, and offering more public trams, trolleys and buses. Estonia is looking to reduce emissions from personal transport by trialling free public transportation across the country. Even China, the nation most synonymous with toxic levels of air pollution have been able to drop levels of airborne particulates by a third by increasing fines and last year doubled the number of electric vehicles sold from the previous year, and are on track to sell 35 million by 2025.
Finland is on record for having the best air quality in the world, according to data from the World Health Organisation. Airborne particulates average just six micrograms per cubic metre, the lowest level on the planet. This is owed to the stringent standards Finland holds itself to, which has drastically improved air quality and lowered pollution levels over the past decade. Cogeneration, the utilisation of waste energy and heat from industry has significantly reduced emissions from fuel combustion. Encouragement of walking, cycling and free public transport has reduced traffic emissions, along with diesel buses being converted to run off waste bio-fuels or replaced with battery powered transportation. They are also investing into expanding electric car charging points across the nation, and raising taxes on combustion vehicles. All of these initiatives enable Finland residents to have cleaner air, as well as helping the nation meet its goal to have renewables surpass 50% energy generation within the next two years, with the long-term ambition to become carbon-neutral.
Despite such clear solutions spearheaded by other countries, the UK government just over a month ago unveiled their own new plan to combat air pollution. The key strategy to solving the problem, which is predominantly from nitrogen dioxide and particulates from diesel? To introduce stricter standards on log-burning fires, reduce ammonia emissions from agriculture, and to hopefully ban diesel trains by 2040.
The solutions to a cleaner and therefore greener future are here, and the UK government still seems determined to cherry-pick the most comfortable solutions rather than the most effective. Air pollution isn’t something we should wait a couple decades to solve, as children being born today will enter into adulthood with respiratory problems that they needn’t have struggled with. How many more people like Ella have to die before the government recognises their complacency verges on complicity?