IIt was news that toxic air pollution particles had been found in the lungs and brains of unborn babies who had it. I don’t have children by choice and I have about as much maternal instinct as Matilda‘s Miss Trunchbull, but this disturbing new research literally stopped me dead. Future dystopian climate activists and scientists had warned us that they suddenly felt ominously close — and it made me want to flee the capital for rolling green pastures.
Groundbreaking research from the University of Aberdeen and the University of Hasselt in Belgium is far from the first discordant data on the impact of pollution in dense urban spaces. In July, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants found that air pollution is likely to increase the risk of developing dementia and hasten “cognitive decline” in older people. Scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder also found in September a link between inhaled pollutants and an increased risk of allergies, diabetes and obesity in babies. An October study found that air pollution could contribute to obesity in middle-aged women, while in early November the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that world mayors had to act now to reduce pollution or more people would die.
With 3,000 parks and green spaces – 47% of which are the stuff – London is one of the greenest cities in Europe. The Mayor of London’s environmental strategy includes a commitment to “make London 50% green by 2050” and to make London’s transport system zero emissions. Yet last week car pollution levels in the city hit their highest level since the pandemic began in 2020. As cars came to a halt and people were forced indoors in the Under the national lockdown, nature has breathed a sigh of relief as carbon emissions from public transport and factories come to a standstill. Now, it looks like one of the few good things to come from the pandemic is over. As for me, I’m afraid to open my bedroom window.
Since time immemorial, people have flocked to capital cities in search of jobs, love, a fresh start, and the freedom and anonymity that these urban spaces can offer. As a teenager growing up in a city in the north of England, I used to fantasize about escaping into the big smoke. London represented possibility and potential: new people, places, opportunities and – yes – glamour! It meant the freedom to be and love whoever I want, a not insignificant attraction that continues to attract people considered “other” by mainstream sensibilities. It’s also a big part of why I keep staying.
But now? Twenty-two years after I first moved to the city to study, the housing market is in crisis, the gap between rich and poor is widening at lightning speed and we are being advised against making exercising outdoors due to ‘very high’ levels of pollution. The worst thing is that people are dying.
According to the WHO, air pollution kills around seven million people worldwide each year, while 99% of the world’s population breathes air that exceeds the limits set by the WHO. While people in the majority world are most at risk, it is also happening closer to home. Nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah died in 2013 of an asthma attack caused by air pollution. Growing up just 25 meters from the Southern Ring Road – a major traffic route bypassing the capital – she suffered multiple seizures and was hospitalized 27 times before her death. In 2020 a coroner ruled that Ella had been exposed to “excessive” levels of pollution, making her the first person in the UK to have it listed as a cause of death.
Following the landmark inquest, the coroner recommended the UK align its ‘much higher’ threshold for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – a type of harmful air pollutant – with that of the Organization World Health Organization to reduce its death toll from air pollution. . The Environment Act 2021 introduced a requirement for the government to come up with at least two air quality targets by October 2022. These include a commitment to reduce the annual average level of fine particulate matter (PM2 ,5) in the ambient air, as well as a long-term goal which the government says will “encourage long-term investment and provide certainty for business and other stakeholders”.
In a statement to parliament on October 28, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Thérèse Coffey, however, announced that the government would not be able to achieve these objectives “like the ‘requires the law’. She added: “I would like to reassure this House and all interested parties that we will continue to work at pace in order to table draft regulatory texts as soon as possible.” It’s almost as if an issue that disproportionately affects people living in poverty isn’t a priority.
As the government continues to drag its feet on an issue London Mayor Sadiq Khan has described as ‘a matter of life and death’, Londoners continue to breathe air so filthy it violates the international laws.
Although the city continues to be a source of inspiration, fun and freedom, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the warning signs that, like a bad relationship, are getting worse and worse for our health. Everyone who wants to come to this exhilarating place should have this opportunity, without having to worry that an invisible health hazard could cause irreversible damage to their well-being. Nothing less than urgent, top-down intervention measures are needed to keep this special city safe.
Gazing at the car-crammed thoroughfares of the city I’ve fallen in love with, I take a puff from my inhaler and dream of clean, grassy meadows.
#London #love #pollution