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London's choking: how toxic air is killing our city

Written by
Cath Clarke

The air you’re inhaling might look clean, but it isn’t. Atmospheric pollution is still a killer in London. And, believe it or not, you’re more exposed to it on a bus than on a bike. Cath Clarke finds out more.

A classic complaint of newbie Londoners is sniffing out black snot at the end of the day. I stopped noticing it years ago and, until recently, assumed air pollution was one of those things that science fixed back in the ’80s, like acid rain. Then my friend was rushed to A&E with pneumonia. She got better but when she left hospital, a doctor told her that if she moved out of London, the improvement in air quality would increase her life expectancy. Can that be true in 2017? Do we genuinely need to worry about the air we breathe? The short answer is yes.

The facts are brutal: nearly 9,500 people in London die prematurely from conditions related to air pollution every year. Living here could shorten your life. London kids are growing up with smaller lungs. We all have an increased risk of respiratory illnesses like asthma and lung disease. One doctor told me that whenever there’s a winter smog (more on those in a bit), exactly five days later A&E departments see a spike in strokes and heart attacks. London exceeded its annual pollution limits in the first five days of this year. Londoners are more health-obsessed than ever (or at least more obsessed with avocados and green juice), so why don’t we know and care more about the filthy air we’re breathing and demand a cleaner city?

The first person I talk to is Andrea Lee, a healthy-air campaigner with ClientEarth, an environmental law charity that challenged the government at the Supreme Court in 2015 over levels of air pollution. ‘People don’t know how bad it is or how it’s affecting their health,’ she tells me. ‘London has been breaking legal limits of air quality since 2010. This is a public health crisis.’

The problem, says Lee, is that unlike the thick smogs of 1950s, when you couldn’t see two yards in front of you, air pollution today is invisible. There are two pollutants that we especially need to worry about, both mainly the product of diesel engines: nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas; and fine particles less than a third of the width of a human hair – some so tiny they can get through the lining of the lungs into the bloodstream and to the heart, which explains those strokes and heart attacks. (Ye olde 'smog' was caused by factories in the city and the coal smoke belched out by a million domestic chimneys. The Victorians nicknamed these dirty yellow fogs ‘pea-soupers’ because they looked similar to a soup made from yellow split peas eaten by poor Londoners.)

Lee recommends a few hacks we can all use to reduce the damage to our health from air pollution. Opting for quiet roads instead of congested main ones helps. And if you have no choice, walking closer to the buildings rather than by the kerb is better, she tells me. Seriously? ‘More research needs to be done, but it makes sense: the further away you are from the source of pollution, the less the risk, because of concentration levels.’

Are you reading this on the bus? If so, and you’re looking out of the window at the cyclists, thinking: Suckers, breathing in all those exhaust fumes, think again. Researchers at King’s College London have tested the pollution levels of different capital commutes. I travel to work either by bike or on the number 38. Some days, cycling home will leave me with a scratchy throat like I’ve been chain-smoking the exhaust pipe of a lorry for 30 minutes. But according to Ben Barratt, an analyst at King’s, it’s the bus that’s likely to be the more pollution-risky journey. ‘The idea of closing the doors and shutting out the fumes is wrong,’ he says. ‘Generally speaking, if you walk down a quiet road, you’ve got the lowest level of exposure. Then it’s cycling, then walking down a busy road, then cycling down a busy road, then bus, then car or taxi.’ Travelling in a car is like being trapped in a pollution box. ‘The inlet for your air vent is right next to the exhaust pipe of the vehicle in front,’ he says. ‘So if you’re in congested traffic, the exhaust from the vehicle in front is literally being sucked into your car.’

Right now we’re in prime smog season. Every year, between January and April, London has three or four smog events that usually last a couple of days, caused by weather systems: cool, calm conditions that allow air pollution to build up, the cold air forming a blanket over the city (creating that Instagram filter-like haze you see over buildings). On my visit to ClientEarth’s office in Hackney, one of Andrea Lee’s colleagues tells me that on high-pollution days he has to stop himself shouting out of the window at runners on London Fields to get indoors for the sake of their health. A few days later, a colleague tells me about Christopher Lancaster, who runs marathons and has blogged about his asthma, which he believes he’s developed from running on polluted streets.

‘I do feel pollution has directly led to my asthma,’ says Lancaster, a 41-year-old teacher. ‘It makes sense, right? No asthma all my life. Start running around London lots, and within a few years I have asthma, which is normally something that develops in children.’ I put the idea to a doctor, Rossa Brugha, lecturer and paediatrician at Imperial College London. Is it possible that Lancaster has got asthma from running in London? Entirely plausible, says Brugha. ‘He may have had an underlying tendency that then got exacerbated by the quality of the air here.’ Do you have kids in London? Maybe one day? Brugha was part of research examining the effect of air pollution on children’s health in London, and the results are shocking. 

The study measured kids’ lung growth year on year. It revealed that children in London are falling behind everyone else in the UK. ‘So going into adulthood, their lung function may be 10 to 15 percent less than it would be if they’d grown up in cleaner air,’ Brugha explains. ‘What that means is that when they’re 50 they may have lung function comparable to that of 65-year-olds. This increases their risk of getting bronchitis and emphysema. It’s likely to cost the NHS a fortune. And where’s our next Mo Farah going to come from?’ If we were feeding our kids dirty water or dirty food, says Brugha, there would be a massive outcry. ‘But we seem happy to let governments and big industries have us breathe in polluted air without batting an eyelid.’ As for the tube, there is not enough research to work out what’s going on down there, he reckons. ‘Not much is known about what the tube air does to us,’ he says. ‘I would say it’s a black hole we don’t know about, as opposed to saying “There’s no evidence it’s bad for you, so it’s safe.”'

Brugha has never taken his one-year-old son on the tube: ‘I would be worried about what breathing that stuff in when your lungs are little and growing is going to do.’ The big question – the one that my friend with pneumonia had to weigh up – is whether pollution here is bad enough to make you leave London? I ask Christopher Lancaster this. ‘I love this city. It’s my home and where I was born,’ he says. ‘I value the friendships I have and the community I’m part of here, and I value the cultural life. But what is more important than health?’ I ask Brugha whether he considered moving away before having his son, knowing what he does. He shrugs: ‘Air pollution takes eight to nine months off your life if you live in London. But there are benefits to city life. You have to balance it.’ Still, he jokes, there’s one person who’s probably in London a lot less these days: ‘I bet the Queen doesn’t spend as much time at Buckingham Palace as she used to. It’s one of the most polluted houses in the country, in the middle of that busy roundabout.’

Pollution levels are seriously high this week – Sadiq Khan has issued a 'black' level toxic air alert for the first time.

But on the plus side, pollution levels on Oxford Street have dropped by a third in 12 months.

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