Polluted London Skyline

10 things we learned from this week’s smog

Air pollution causes smog crisis

Now that the dust has settled (or more accurately, blown over to Europe), it is a good time to dispel some myths, get the facts straight and reflect on a week which has seen air pollution hit the headlines.

It wasn’t a Saharan dust storm

There is a growing consensus that the significance of the Saharan dust has been grossly exaggerated. We will have to wait for scientists to carry out chemical analysis of the dust particles but some are already estimating that the Saharan dust could have been responsible for as little as 5% of the total pollution.

It wasn’t a freak event

Far from being a rare, one-off event, this week’s smog was just one of an estimated 61 such events to hit Britain in the last five years, according to Newsnight. In fact, the smog that hit the UK and much of Northern Europe 2 – 3 weeks ago was just as bad, if not worse (see my previous blog).

We can’t trust the government

David Cameron cancelled his morning jog in Manchester because of the pollution, but dismissed the smog as a “natural phenomenon.” This was at best staggeringly complacent, at worst a deliberate attempt to mislead the public about the true nature of our pollution problems. The Mayor of London was similarly keen to downplay the smog’s seriousness.

Cameron was quickly given a rap over the knuckles by the European Commission, which recently took legal action against the UK over illegal levels of traffic pollution: “To say this is a temporary issue caused by Saharan dust shows a clear misunderstanding of the air pollution issue.”

”It’s clearly an issue you would expect any government to deal with if it’s serious about protecting the health of the general public.” (Joe Hennon, European Commission Spokesperson for Environment)

The very least we can expect from our government is some honesty about the nature and scale of the pollution problem we face. Accepting we have a problem is the first step to recovery.

We should be able to trust the Met Office

Given that this smog was not especially unusual, why did it attract unprecedented levels of media attention? One reason could be that on 1st April the Met Office was handed responsibility for issuing pollution warnings. ClientEarth and the Healthy Air Campaign have been calling for smog warnings to be regularly featured on weather forecasts, so we were delighted, if somewhat surprised, by this news.

Clearly there is still work to be done to ensure smog warnings are clear, consistent and accurate.

However, at least we can expect the Met Office, unlike civil servants and ministers, to give us proper smog warnings without fear of political embarrassment.

Seeing is believing

Another explanation for the media frenzy around this week’s smog is that people could see it with their own eyes. If the Saharan dust did play an important part in the smog, it was this.

But it is worth bearing in mind that most of the time we can’t see modern air pollution. Harmful gases and microscopic particles are normally invisible to the naked eye. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there – with 29,000 deaths each year attributed to long-term exposure to pollution from man-made particles, pollution is as an invisible killer.

Air pollution affects all of us

The London Ambulance Service reported a 14% increase in call outs due to breathing problems, and the Daily Mail reported that more than a million people with asthma suffered an attack brought on by the smog.

But it is not just those with asthma or lung problems who should be worried – during days of high pollution, more people die or are admitted to hospital because of heart attacks and strokes.

Even if you are fit and healthy, should you really have to cancel your morning jog because of fears about pollution? Or worry whether to let your children play outside on sunny days? Air pollution affects us all, young or old, poor or David Cameron, so we all have a right to be warned so that we can protect ourselves, our friends and our families.

Courts must uphold our right to clean air

Legal limits in place to protect our health are broken every day – not just during smog episodes. The government faces legal action on two fronts because of illegal levels of traffic pollution in towns and cities throughout the UK. First, ClientEarth’s case will be heard by the European Court of Justice later this year. The case will then return to the UK Supreme Court which will rule on what action to take against the UK. We will be asking for an order which forces the government to clean up pollution from all sources, but especially from diesel transport, in the shortest time possible.

Second, the Commission has brought its own legal action. While this will likely be kept on hold until after the ClientEarth case has been resolved, it could ultimately result in fines.

We have a right to breathe clean air. ClientEarth has fought a three-year court battle to uphold that right.

We think this year we will finally win that battle and secure a landmark ruling from the European Court that will lead to cleaner air not just in the UK but throughout Europe.

We need a plan to get deadly diesel off Britain’s roads

Faced with legal action on two fronts and now, hopefully, a groundswell of public and media opinion calling for change, the government must stop making excuses and take action.

We need a national system of low emission zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles out of our towns and cities. The Mayor’s proposals for an ultra low emission zone in London are heading in the right direction, but the zone needs to be much bigger and be introduced much sooner than currently proposed.

We also need to get serious with efforts to get more people cycling and walking. While cycling rates in the UK languish below 5%, we should be looking to cities like Copenhagen, where more than a third of journeys are pedal powered.

We need EU legislation

Air pollution does not respect national borders and that was really brought home this week. While the role of Saharan dust was overstated, there is no doubt that pollution blown over from the continent added to our home-grown traffic fumes to form the toxic soup we’ve been swimming in for the last few days.

So while tackling transport pollution is essential to protect our health and achieve legal limits, we need to work with our European neighbours to clean up the air we all share.

New air pollution laws are on the table in Brussels. Commission proposals aim to reduce smog across Europe by tackling pollution at source. Unfortunately, the draft legislation doesn’t go far enough, so more urgency and ambition is needed.

After the Great Smog of 1952, the UK led the world in tackling urban air pollution. It can do the same again but first it must get its own house in order by tackling domestic pollution.

We are calling on all political parties to make fighting air pollution a priority, both within the UK and the EU.

You can protect yourself

You can take steps to protect yourself from the worst effects. Cut your exposure drastically by taking a road with less traffic – studies have shown that even in central London you can reduce your exposure by up to a half. Keep an eye on forecasts so you to know when air pollution is due to be particularly high, and when taking a cleaner route will make the most difference.

Government have been visibly shaken by the sudden interest in this issue, which they have tried to keep under wraps. Sign up to the Healthy Air Campaign and we’ll tell you about other ways to help.

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