Air pollution may be ‘health timebomb’ for London’s deprived children

Air pollution protest

More than 4,000 premature deaths in London in 2008 were attributed to air pollution

On-going study of children in east London finds air pollution a factor in lung impairment - but political deadlock and lack of public awareness are holding up solutions
It screams of inequality. It’s people living in inner-city areas, it’s those who may be in any way disabled health-wise

News that London has been given another six-years to bring its air quality up to the EU’s minimum level is both unsurprising and depressing.

Campaigners, quite rightly, ask how a city that was already failing to reduce levels of air pollution could be allowed to scrap a congestion charge zone and delay a low emissions scheme and still convince EU health officials it was serious about tackling the problem and should be allowed a delay.

Not that government officials were willing to admit this - it was only a freedom of information request that forced an admission of the time extension.

It’s not a sorry saga that can be dismissed as a minor political story either. According to a report commissioned by the Greater London Authority (GLA), 4,267 premature deaths in 2008 were attributed to long-term exposure to air pollution.

With emerging evidence from the US and UK showing air pollution is causing long-term impairment to children’s lungs, it is fast becoming a public health crisis.

The decade-long Southern California Children’s Health study, conducted by the University of Southern California (USC), concluded in 2010 that long-term exposure to air pollution over the lung’s growing period (up to age 18) can reduce lung capacity by ten per cent, while also likely contributing to the development of asthma and heart disease.

According to Frank Kelly, Director of Centre for Environmental Health at Kings College London, the results from the USC study could be ‘an early warning sign that this may be the magnitude of the problem for our country.’

‘That study needs to be repeated. Those results need to be shown to be conclusive in a number of other studies,’ he continues, ‘but if this is true then this is the biggest problem we have to do work on.’

East London children

Kelly is doing his own investigation into the health impacts of air pollution on children in the UK - early results from his EXHALE programme corroborate the results of the California study.

In its third year, researchers are collecting data from more than 400 children in east London schools located near major roads every Autumn. The programme is specifically researching the effects anti-pollution measures have on improving child health in urban areas – in particular the third phase of London’s Low Emission Zone scheme [a charging scheme aiming to reduce the polluting emissions of diesel-powered commercial vehicles].

‘Either way, we should be able to draw important conclusions. If there is an effect, then that’s an argument for other cities to introduce these sorts of measures. If there’s no effect then the air quality measures are not sufficiently stringent,’ says Professor Chris Griffiths, from Queen Mary’s Centre for Primary Care and Public Health and co-lead investigator of programme with Kelly.

While the purpose of the study isn’t to determine the causes of lung impairment in children, Griffiths says they’ve found that lung function in the children they’ve studied is impaired, and that air pollution is ‘likely to be one factor.’

The 'invisible killer'

Kelly says the evidence that long-term exposure to air pollution causes health problems is ‘pretty irrefutable’. ‘It’s crept up on us, we didn’t understand it, but we certainly do now,’ he adds.

The pollutants themselves – most notably nitrous oxide, ozone and particulate matter (PM) 10 and 2.5 – are small enough to not only be invisible to the human eye, but also to penetrate the lungs and, in the case of particulate matter, the blood stream as well.

The out-of-sight out-of-mind mentality is reinforced by the sector of the population worst effected by air pollution, namely the population that typically lives closest to main roads.

‘It screams of inequality. It’s people living in inner-city areas, it’s those who may be in any way disabled health-wise, and it’s the very young,’ says Clare Nasir, ITV meteorologist and ambassador for the campaign.

In order to obtain its extension, the government projected there would be no more than 43 ‘bad-air days’ in London this year.

According to ClientEarth, Londoners have already experienced 40, and on the 21st April, air quality monitoring in London showed that a monitoring site in Marylebone Road recorded 36 breaches during 2011 of the particulate matter limit value.

A maximum of 35 breaches are allowed per year to cover situations when air pollution levels may be outside of a country’s control, for example when the wind blows in high levels of pollution from another European country, apart from which the country must be consistently below the limit value.

It is not a crisis limited to London. The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) estimates that 29,000 premature deaths in the UK in 2008 were attributable to it, and may have had a smaller contribution to over 200,000 early deaths that year.

However, it is in London where the situation is worst – and also where some of the most blatant mistakes are being made.

London's political buck-passing

On the 13th July direct action group Climate Rush staged a ‘die-in’ in the middle of the intersection of Euston Road and Gordon Street, symbolising the thousands who die prematurely in London every year as a result of air pollution.

Speaking at the rally, Green Party mayoral candidate Jenny Jones called it, ‘the number one environmental and public health issue for Londoners…hardly surprising when both the government and Mayor have done so little about the pollution.’

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, has come under heavy criticism for trying to cancel the third phase of London’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ), which would have charged commercial vans for entering the LEZ. In the end he managed to delay its planned introduction by two years till January 2012.

London was supposed to have lowered pollution levels to EU standards in 2005, and has had requests for an extension partially rejected by the EU ever since because it didn’t believe the measures would work. The recent plans, which have gained approval, are also being dismissed as inadequate.

‘The Mayor and the Government are taking another big gamble with Londoners’ health. They have cynically rushed through a package of experimental measures before knowing whether they will actually work, and are denying the public their legal right to comment on them,’ says Alan Andrews, ClientEarth air quality lawyer.

One technique, dust suppression that traps polluting particles in dust, is the subject of severe criticism. According to ClientEarth, even the government has admitted that the measure is highly experimental with little guarantee of actual success.

Jon Averns, Environmental Health and Public Protection Director for the City of London Corporation, says the City is testing the effectiveness of dust suppression.

‘We’re only saying we’ll do it if it’s shown to be effective, and we’re awaiting the results on that,’ says Averns.

The solution, say campaigners, to tackling air pollution effectively lies in getting it on the public and political agenda. At the moment it remains the ‘invisible killer’ both in real and political terms - air quality gets just one sentence in the Coalition Agreement and is not mentioned at all in Defra’s business plan.

What’s more Defra provides just £40,000-£50,000 a year to London to help it address air quality issues in the capital.

Giving evidence to MPs recently, Defra minister Lord Henley blamed recent cut-backs for the lack of support it could give local authorities.

‘I think it is important to always remind anyone who raises these questions that we have a duty to tackle the deficit first and foremost, and it is up to local authorities to then make sure that they can still perform their statutory functions,’ he said.

Nationally, Defra is committed to providing £500 million for lowering transport-related pollution through the Local Sustainable Transport Fund but this is still small in comparison to government estimates of the £16 billion annual social and economic costs of poor air quality, such as hospital costs for those suffering from respiratory problems.

Kelly has some sympathy with government and says it needs public pressure to force air quality to be given a higher priority.

With rumours the costs of failing to improve air pollution could be passed onto council taxpayers, the issue could jump up the agenda in future mayoral elections.

At present, the EU fines for failing to meet air quality targets would have to be paid by central government but the Localism Bill, currently making its way through parliament, would make it possible for the government to force local councils to pay fines.

The Local Government Association (LGA) say that if the EU fine for missing air pollution limits was passed down to local authorities, it would add 7.7 per cent, or more than £100, to the average annual council tax bill in greater London.

It’s unlikely to take on this burden without a fight though.

‘There is simply no fair way to retrospectively pass responsibility for paying fines for missing national targets, set behind closed doors in Brussels, onto council taxpayers,’ says Baroness Margaret Eaton, LGA Chairman.

‘Too many of the factors which could lead England to miss its targets fall outside town hall influence. On air quality alone big polluters like motorways, bus operators and airports are beyond our control.’

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