We expend a lot of hot air in politics, but what we breathe in is becoming increasingly dangerous. The problem is you can’t see it, so we tend to ignore it.
It’s an issue my local Labour Party in Sevenoaks has been campaigning on and at first I thought it was just scaremongering. But air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 premature deaths in the UK and the threat varies massively according to where you live. When you bring that down to 50 in my District, the numbers start to get chilling.
Friends of the Earth name the cities of Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton as breaching legal limits on deadly nitrogen dioxide – but London is by far the worst. The London Air Quality Network at Kings College can provide you with all the data you need to support a local campaign. You may have seen images of air pollution in China, but last January saw pollution levels in London exceed those in Beijing. The trend towards wood- burning stoves bears part of the blame – it is said more than a million homes in Britain now have a wood burning stove with 175,000 new ones installed every year.
In my area, it’s the approach roads to motorways and A roads around small town centres that are the most polluted – and unlike in London, monitoring of air quality is not carried out by our Tory Council. We donned facemasks and stood by the most polluted road in Swanley to illustrate this in a recent by-election campaign.
Back in the day, we were encouraged to buy diesel cars for environmental reasons – how wrong we were – it is the diesel fumes that are one of the most deadly contributors and the Government needs to act much faster than it is to get these cars off the road. The last Labour Government offered a compensation scheme for people to scrap the most polluting vehicles and this one should do the same. The British Lung Foundation said, “It’s a complete no-brainer: investing in making cycling and walking safer and more accessible in our cities - and moving towards ditching diesel will not only help clear up our roads, but will clean up the air we’re all breathing too.”
The UK fails to comply with much UK legislation on air quality and this can be made a campaigning point during Brexit – we should be aiming for the toughest measures possible. The Royal Society of Chemistry’s annual conference in December is most timely to provide further awareness. They say: “While there is general consensus on the benefits of reducing ambient concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter, there are many open questions about the priorities for maximum health benefits, the changing sources of these pollutants, and the best ways to reduce exposure to the public. All these questions need to be addressed using reliable evidence.” The persistent cuts at Defra must not be used as an excuse to reduce the work of its Air Quality Group – a body that can actually save lives.
Your local Labour Party, transport group or neighbourhood can get a Clean Air Kit campaign pack from Friends of Earth to monitor the air in your area, and help publicise this deadly – but invisible – killer.