How Clean is Your Air?

Clare Nasir
pollution 300x225 How Clean is Your Air?

(Getty Images)

There have been some hard hitting public health campaigns so far this year. The ‘stop smoking’ adverts definitely would make me think twice about lighting up if I was a smoker. While the healthy eating ones have certainly triggered a thought or two when I’ve been doing my family food shop.

What I do find quite strange and frustrating is the lack of public information about the quality of air. I’m talking about the air we inhale as we walk to and from school, hurry around town or even puff and pant whilst attempting exercise in the park. Until recently I was ignorant about such information – I lived in central London, took my daughter to nursery every morning on foot, went for a run at least twice a week – close to busy roads, and loved a free afternoon to wander along my local high street. However, since working for the UK’s Healthy Air Campaign and talking to experts about air quality across Britain, I would think twice before doing any of the above on certain days.

Back in the day…

My grandmother lived on a busy street in central London many moons ago; she still talks candidly about bringing up two small children in the city before the Clear Air Act of 1952. She describes her children’s mouths and noses being caked with soot every morning on bad air days. She explains how she would keep them inside all day when the smog got so thick on the street she knew it would dangerous to breathe it in, let alone venture out in it.

However, she also speaks of the most amazing transformation to their lives once the act was passed – overnight the air became cleaner, not only in London but across the country. A ban on the offending domestic burnt fuel and tighter industrial regulations was all it took – from my grandmother’s point of view, someone high up took the initiative, applied some common sense and followed through.

I would have hoped that since the 1950s that the air quality would have improved further – we are far more aware of what is harmful to our bodies and technology has moved forward in leaps and bounds, but when it comes to air this doesn’t seem to be the case.

The slow, invisible killer

Whereas my grandmother could see and smell the smog that prevented her children from enjoying a walk in the fresh air, the type of pollutant that now hovers in our midst is an invisible and slow killer. Today 29,000 people die prematurely each year in the UK because of the air they breathe. And evidence is now emerging that high levels of air pollution are stunting the growth of lungs in children.

Over 200 local authorities across the UK have declared air pollution hotspots where people are at a significant risk from either or both of these key pollutants: particulate matter (PM10s) and nitrogen dioxide. PM10s are a nasty collective emitted from vehicle exhausts, they comprise of tiny particles of sulphates, carbon, nitrates and other materials.

And this is what it’s doing to our bodies..

When inhaled, PM10s and nitrogen dioxide penetrate deep into the lung tissue. The build up continues over many years, but even on days when levels are high we are oblivious to the damage it is doing to the inner realms of our body. Unlike high concentrations of surface level ozone that can result in eye irritations, coughing and other breathing ailments, PM10s don’t reveal themselves with any immediate adverse signs. However, later on in life, the onset of asthma, emphysema and other bronchial diseases can lead to early death. It’s estimated that this means a staggering average loss of nine years for those that are exposed to the poorest quality of air.

Children and asthma

A recent European study (Aphekom) concluded that those living near main roads in cities could account for a staggering 15-30 per cent of all new cases of asthma in children and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary heart disease of adults aged over 65. Furthermore I was appalled to read that the UK has amongst the highest frequency of child asthma symptoms worldwide.

It isn’t just the young, the sick and the old that suffer from the effects of dirty air. The build up of particulate matter in the lungs takes years but continual exposure, such as riding a bike to work along busy roads or exercising in town centres, can leave healthy bodies just as vulnerable.

The health impact: work days lost to illness and other costs to society of air pollution are similar to obesity or alcohol abuse but unlike these other two killers the air pollution issue has very little public profile. Have you ever seen a government advert warning about dirty air?

My little girl

My daughter was eight weeks premature and had breathing issues. She was discharged from hospital a couple of months after being born. I remember thinking how wonderful it was to now be a ‘normal’ mum – after all the stress and worry of her first few months. Sienna in her band new pram and I would head out. There are some lovely parks close to where we lived but the busy A1 was a matter of streets away and at some point in the day I would find myself walking along a section of it to get back home. Later when I realized how damaging the air was to breathe, particularly during rush hour, we would take alternative routes but it’s very hard to find an area in London which is not near a main road.

On one of our many conversations about my campaign work my Grandmother commented on the design of prams and pushchairs today – they are much lower to the ground than in her day, and many face outwards, so kids are exposed to all kinds of nastiness that is spewed from exhausts.

Lucky us

We have now moved from London and live in Cheshire, on the outskirts of a town. Although our house is still only five miles from two very busy motorways and so we continue to be in the firing line if a steady breeze blows from the north or west. But I have noticed a significant improvement in my three-year-old’s health. Her inhaler comes out rarely and when it stops raining we don’t think twice about heading outside. We had an opportunity to move away and we took it – most people don’t have such options – for countless different reasons and to be honest, why should they move?

Isn’t it time that the government tackled this rarely spoken about yet huge public health problem? Like the 1952 Clean Air Act, it’s time for a decisive set of policies to combat air pollution in our towns and cities. After all, don’t we all have the right to take a stroll down our local high street in the knowledge it won’t take years off our lives?

The Healthy Air Campaign is Mumsnet Campaign of the Week. Children are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution and so it’s great that Mumsnet are recognising the importance of the issue. We’d like parents to become a powerful voice in calling for government to take action to achieve legal limits for air pollution.

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  • Adrian Fox

    Councils all carry out air quality measurements and have to legally take some kind of action when this falls below permitted levels. But most of the opposition comes from local people and drivers who are not prepared to get out of their cars or take alternative routes to avoid the most polluted areas. Most air pollution is caused by motor vehicles and yet ask somebody in an affected area to take public transport or walk to the shops and you will be told you are persecuting the motorist.
    Every asthmatic child and elderly person who dies of a winter heart attack triggered by pollution should be on the conscience of inconsiderate drivers.

  • Francarange

    20 mph speed limits and other traffic impeding schemes will exacerbate the problem in built up areas.

  • kawasakiman


    I’ve never quite understood the logic of ’slower means less pollution’.

    Driving faster uses more energy per minute, and therefore produces more pollution. The journey however is quicker, thus reducing the pollution relative to the increase in speed. The energy consumption is the same, so the difference in pollution is minimal.

    This is not to mention that continuously braking to keep your speed down, has a greater negative effect the slower you have to travel.

    It’s almost like we are being pushed into using more petrol, than we really need ???

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