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Air quality: what Londoners need to know

London pollution

With London’s mayor Sadiq Khan issuing emergency warnings about toxic air quality in the capital, no wonder Londoners are anxious about this threat to their health. Less-Stress London’s Margaret Nicholls looks into what is being done to tackle the issue…

Air quality is an issue that affects all of us who live and work in London. And the statistics are shocking: every year around 10,000 people in the capital die prematurely due to air pollution.

On some London roads, the levels of nitrogen dioxide are three times the legal limit. Particulate matter — which actually poses a greater danger to health — is a growing problem, too, especially with the increasing popularity of wood-burning stoves in homes.

To make things even worse this summer, toxic air is being caused by high ozone levels being blown in from industrial areas of France.

So what are the authorities doing about London air pollution?

The government has received repeated warnings from the courts over the issue, with a high court judge stating recently that the government’s failure to clean up our air posed ‘a significant threat to public health’.

Elliot Treharne, air quality manager for Greater London Authority, admits that air pollution disproportionately affects the most vulnerable: the poor, the young and the old. Speaking at the conference ‘Air Quality — Creating a Healthier City’, organised by The Liveable City, he said: ‘A baby born in 2010 and consistently exposed to high levels of air pollution will lose approximately two years of life expectancy.’

London traffic jam

(Credit: Garry Knight, Flickr)

He presented the GLA’s plans to improve the situation:

  • A £10 per day toxicity charge (‘T-Charge’) on the oldest and most polluting vehicles in central London from October 2017. Transport for London has a free online checker where you can see whether your vehicle will be affected.
  • All new buses will have to be hybrid, hydrogen or electric from 2018.
  • £300 million will be spent on retrofitting thousands of buses and phasing out pure diesel double deckers by 2018.
  • Twelve Low Emission Bus Zones will be introduced, putting the greenest buses on the city’s most polluted routes.
  • All new taxis licensed from the beginning of 2018 will have to meet zero emissions standards.
  • From 2019, London will have the world’s first Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), extending the congestion zone and creating stricter emissions for diesel vehicles 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is expected to reduce NOx emissions in central London by half.

Mr Treharne explained that the mayor’s environmental powers are limited and skewed towards transport. However, the GLA is pressing the government for more devolved powers to tackle toxic emissions from all sources, including construction and river traffic.

In response to the plans, Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: ‘The T-charge is an important step from the Mayor of London to deter our most polluting and harmful vehicles from entering central London.

‘We look forward to seeing the mayor go further and launch the Ultra-Low Emission Zone. However, if we are ever going to properly tackle air pollution the Government must commit to a fair and ambitious new Clean Air Act.’

What can we learn from Denmark?

Denmark has achieved impressive compliance with EU limits on air pollution through a combination of regulation, enforcement fines and innovation.

One interesting solution to a particular problem in Denmark — and becoming more and more relevant to London — relates to its traditional ‘hygge’ culture, where most Danish homes have a wood-burning stove.

wood fire

According to Sara Ropke of the Danish Environmental Protections Agency, this tradition has resulted in unacceptably high levels of PM pollution. However, the idea of asking Danes to give up such an integral part of their cosy culture seemed an impossible task.

Their strategy was to launch a widespread awareness campaign and a voluntary scrapping scheme. It has been hugely successful, with most people replacing their old stoves with more efficient, environmentally friendly versions, which emit far lower levels of PM. There is even a model which produces zero emissions.

With the hygge trend and wood-burning stoves becoming more popular in London, perhaps we should be taking note.

Air pollution: what you need to know

Who is most vulnerable?

People with lung or heart conditions, children and the elderly, and those with asthma are at most risk of health issues caused by pollution. People who live in the poorest areas of the city are also more vulnerable as they are more likely to live near busy roads.

What pollutants should we worry about?

In London the pollutants that are of most concern relating to health are particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone.

  • PM is the most damaging to health and can be harmful to our heart and lungs. The smaller particles are the most dangerous as they can penetrate deep into the lungs.
  • NO2 – high levels can harm your lungs and cause difficulty breathing. Symptoms are worse if you are asthmatic.
  • Ozone – concentrated levels of ozone are common on sunny days and is visible as smog. It can irritate the lungs, eyes, ears and throat.
How can I protect myself?

If possible, avoid busy roads when pollution levels are high, as breathing in particles from diesel vehicles can have a damaging effect on the lungs and heart. When air quality is very poor, adults or children with lung or heart issues should avoid strenuous exercise, especially outdoors.

Asthma inhaler

(Credit: NIAID, Flickr)

Dr Samantha Walker, Director of Research and Policy at Asthma UK, says: ‘According to the latest figures from the Health Survey for England, toxic air affects nearly 600,000 people with asthma in London. Those affected should make sure they take steps to avoid the most polluted areas where they can, take their daily preventer medicines regularly and carry a blue reliever inhaler at all times. They should also make sure they get a written asthma action plan from their doctor or nurse so they know what to do in an emergency.’

Should I wear a mask?

According to The Briitish Lung Foundation, masks don’t stop the smallest particulate matter from entering the lungs. Some masks do filter out NO2, which is helpful if you’re cycling on busy roads. However, it is important to make sure the mask doesn’t hamper your breathing.

Where to find air quality information

For daily air quality and a reliable pollution forecast across London, visit London Air, run by the Environmental Research Group at King’s College London.