Air quality: the UK's invisible health crisis

The government appears to be disinterested in the UK's pollution problem, which cuts short thousands of lives each year

By Michael Smith (Veshengro)

It's an invisible health crisis which causes thousands of premature deaths in the UK every year. It can lead to asthma, reduce lung capacity and trigger heart attacks. And our country's failure to adequately address the issue has forced the European commission to take legal action against us.

While everyone keeps talking about GHG emissions and all that jazz the worst ones are being ignored, namely the general air pollution. It is worse for humans and the rest of the environment than the rest of all the things.

Not much good to have a cool Planet when we have all but died out because of air pollution and polluted soil and water, the latter two which are often relkated to the first one.

Yet if the disinterested performance of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) minister Lord Henley at an environmental audit committee hearing last week is anything to go by, the government still just isn't that bothered about the UK's pollution problem.

The committee hearing, which coincided with the 55th anniversary of the 1956 Clean Air Act – introduced in response to the "great smog" over London which killed 4,075 people – saw the minister grilled by MPs on his department's inability to get to grips with air quality.

The government's lack of urgency is surely compounded by the fact that the current threat in the air we breathe is far less obvious than the looming smog clouds of the 1950s. At a previous committee session, Prof Frank Kelly of the environmental research group at King's College London warned us that "we have this new problem that we cannot see: it is tiny particles of nitrogen dioxide." But the health impact of poor air quality in the UK, which is among the worst in Europe, is clear for all to see.

Kelly estimates that about 30,000 people died from air pollution in Britain in 2008, with individuals "losing on average three years of their life."

Road traffic emissions are still the primary culprit, due to the quantity of particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – and also due to the way in which traffic permeates our towns and cities. Pollution from vehicles is released directly into our streets at a low height level, where it has little opportunity to disperse before being inhaled by those who live and work in heavily populated urban areas.

It is being estimated that the traffic emissions of those nigh nano-particles will be getting worse should we decide to have full bio-diesel usage. Some estimate that the nano-particles from bio-diesel would be many times worse – op to 40 times – than those from actual petroleum-based diesel.

However, some of the biggest polluters, and hence the problem in the South of England and around the coastal areas, is in fact shipping, and the ever bigger container vessels, that are putting out the equivalent of thousand times that of all the vehicles on our roads at any given time.

Also, that pollution, even if emitted over the seas, does not remain over the oceans but, will, at some stage, make landfall.

This points once again to the fact that we either need to put in filtration systems into the exhausts and chimneys or we must find another way of doing things.

Unfortunately, the way things are going, I cannot see the government(s) having the political will to enact legislation to clean this up and neither can I see anyone else doing anything about it.

Luck might be on our side in due course when, finally, petroleum products simply become too expensive for the masses to use. Then our air may, eventually, get sorted out again. But, until then, I should guess the cases of asthma in children and adults and other respiratory ailments, as well as allergies, will be increasing.

London's great smog had little to do with automobile fumes in those days back then but everything with the use of (dirty) coal. It was visible because of the high sulfur content.

The pollution from motor vehicles, especially today, is not that visible, if at all. And while the lead has been taken out of gasoline, and thus doing away with the metal taste that was left in your mouth when you had spent a long day in London or such the pollution is still as acute, if not even more so.

Time we cleaned up out act, and the only way to do that is to get out of our cars and walk and cycle more, aside from political will and forcing scrubbers to be put into exhausts and chimneys.

© 2011