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The toxic taste of air pollution

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Issue 2398
Smog over London last week
Smog over London last week (Pic: Flickr/Alan Myers)

The worst air pollution since monitoring began swept large parts of England and Wales last week. From the south coast to Manchester and Sheffield, towns were bathed in thick yellow haze. In London widespread breathing difficulties led to a 14 percent rise in 999 calls. 

Similar episodes in France and Belgium last month led to public transport in some cities being made free, and car use being restricted in others. Campaigners criticised the authorities for doing too little too late. But even they put the Tories to shame.

David Cameron insisted it was just “a naturally occurring weather phenomenon” that he could have done nothing about. London was the worst affected city. But its mayor, Boris Johnson, called for “perspective” and boasted that the smog wasn’t stopping him riding his bike.

The government and much of the media latched onto dust blown in from the Sahara. This makes up most of the dust on cars and much of the visible haze in the air.

But it was only the trigger. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) made clear in its official analysis that the Saharan dust was combining with emissions from European cities and, crucially, a large amount of homegrown pollution.

Britain is on the western edge of Europe and most of its wind blows to the east. But growing air pollution means that our cities are never far from a smog crisis.

“The media and government have jumped on the Sahara dust, and so have a lot of people—it’s the thing that’s most tangible,” Maria Arnold from the Healthy Air campaign told Socialist Worker. “But it’s a side issue as far as we’re concerned. There are already dangerous levels of air pollution so whenever you have something extra it just tips it over.”

Jo Barnes, a research fellow at the Air Quality Management Resource Centre, said “The dust from the Sahara is what people can see, but it’s come with pollution. And not enough is being done to get those pollution levels down.”

Far from Boris Johnson’s bravado, Defra warned people to avoid strenuous exercise. Vulnerable groups—such as those with heart and lung problems, the old and the young—were told to stay in. Many thousands of those who work outdoors in the city will not have had that option. “People who are vulnerable could find it exacerbates their condition, and if they are working they should be off sick,” said Jo.

Several London schools listened to government advisor Professor Frank Kelly and kept children indoors at lunch, though many more didn’t. Children’s lungs are still developing, and if they run around and play they breathe in far more of the polluted air.


This isn’t the first such episode in recent years. There was visible smog in April 2011, then a worse one in March 2012. But these are just extreme versions of an ongoing problem of air pollution that kills thousands every year.

It is linked to heart and lung problems, strokes and skin conditions, and cancer. 

Scientists are still learning about how the different dust sizes and chemicals in the air interact. But we do know that in the worst affected areas air pollution wipes 11.5 years off life expectancy.

The most widely reported figure puts the number of excess deaths due to air pollution every year in Britain at 29,000. But Jo says the real toll could be much higher.

“That is from the fine particulate matter—or dust—that gets into the lungs and causes problems there. But there are different parts of air pollution that aren’t counted in that figure, gases of different kinds such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particularly ozone.”

London was supposed to have cleaned up its famously filthy air years ago (see box). So many are shocked to find out that it is on the rise again, especially since so much of Britain’s heavy industry has declined over the intervening decades.

“In the past smog was mainly coal and dust from industry and domestic heating,” explained Jo. “But now we’re looking at emissions that are mostly invisible and come principally from transport—especially diesel.”

Half of all new cars in Britain now run on diesel, up from one in ten in 2000. As oil prices have gone up it has been widely pushed as a cheaper alternative to petrol. And it’s had a helping hand.

“The government has incentivised diesel through the tax system,” said Maria. “They say it’s a green fuel. But it only gives a very slight improvement in carbon efficiency—and it’s far worse for air pollution.

“There should be low emission zones to keep the most polluting vehicles out of cities. But a change in technology isn’t enough. You can have cleaner cars, but it’s no good if their numbers keep increasing.”

And that’s the other problem. The chaotic way capitalism lays out our cities forces millions to commute. And planning in Britain prioritises polluting cars over walking, cycling and public transport. 

“Traffic is forecast to grow by 40 percent according to the Department for Transport,” said Jo. “The impact on public health isn’t factored in. We need to recognise that pollution, and reduce traffic growth instead of always increasing it.”

Maria said, “The government forecast isn’t based on evidence, but it doesn’t have to be. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, making sure that everything continues to get built for cars.”

Air pollution is now a major public health issue across Europe, but Britain has been particularly bad at responding. Air pollution levels here break European regulations. The government faces a lawsuit from Maria’s organisation Client Earth and another from the European Commission. But there are no plans to deal with it this decade.

“The government is just leaving it to the market to sort it out,” said Maria. “We put the responsibility on the government.”

Hot air from Boris 

It’s no surprise London mayor Boris Johnson has tried to downplay the smog episode. “Air pollution kills thousands of Londoners and the mayor has done nothing to address it,” Murad Qureshi, chair of the London Assembly Environment Committee, told Socialist Worker.

“Some of the biggest hotspots are Oxford Circus and Putney High Street—both major bus interchanges. That could be dealt with by retrofitting existing buses with new anti-pollution technology. This decision is directly in the mayor’s hands.

“Black cabs cause another type of pollution, and changing the requirements for them could make a huge difference. But the only proposal he has put on the table wouldn’t come into play until 2020, and Boris is talking about standing down at 2016. 

“He’s just kicked it into the long grass for a future mayor to deal with.”

Plane stupid?

“It’s a pretty clear signal that we should stop the third runway for Heathrow,” said airport campaigner John Stewart. “There are areas around Heathrow, in Hillingdon for example, that are over EU legal limits. The airport bosses say they want 260,000 extra planes a year. 

“The pollution comes mostly from cars and Heathrow, so there needs to be a big switch towards public transport. That means big investment to make public transport cheaper for ordinary people.”

Poor health

The world Health Organisation last year reported that air pollution had become the world’s biggest environmental health problem, killing seven million people in 2012. That’s one in every eight deaths. The main reasons vary—from industrial pollution in China to diesel soot in London. 

In poor countries cooking on wood fires condemns millions to daily intakes of deadly smoke. But this would be preventable with existing technology and resources, if only it was shared out and planned.

‘Everything went black’

Action against air pollution is possible. The deadly smogs from coal fires that routinely plagued London until the 1950s are now a thing of the past, thanks to the Clean Air Act of 1956. Mary Phillips grew up in London before the Act.

“It was unspeakably dreadful,” she told Socialist Worker. “I had horrible catarrh for years after. Sometimes we’d get to school and our headteacher would send us home—so we’d have to go back out into the smog.

“But what I remember most was the day after really bad smog, everything was covered in greasy filth. You had to watch where you put your hands or you’d be covered in it.”

The effects of air pollution on health had been known since the 19th century. But governments did almost nothing to bring it under control. In December 1952 the problem became too big to ignore, with a great smog that killed at least 4,000 people in a few days. 

Modern research suggests the numbers could be three times higher. Mary remembers it well. “All of a sudden everything went black. My youngest sister was hysterical as we sat in the dark. My parents were coming back from a trip out of London, and my mother said they could see it ahead like a big black balloon. She never forgot that, it was a dreadful day.”

The outcry that followed led to the Clean Air Act. 

Big power plants moved out of the cities or were given taller chimneys, and gas and electricity replaced coal as the main way of heating people’s homes.

It took a long time to take effect—too long to stop another major smog event as late as 1962. But when it did it made a huge difference. And if they could do it then, they can do it again today.

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