Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Letter in Resurgence: Air pollution

If water is life then perhaps air is spirit, so why then are we treating the air as a dumping ground? My letter has been published in Resurgence. Slightly longer version here:

According to articles in the last few issues of Resurgence water is life, so what does that make air? The medical term for breathing air is respiration which shares its roots with the word spirit. Indeed to inspire means to breathe in as well as to fill with energy to do something and to expire means to breathe out as well as die. So if water is life then perhaps air is spirit?

So why then are we treating the air as a dumping ground?

Our atmosphere is just a thin layer across our Earth, a layer that is responsible for the air we breathe, the weather and maintaining the climate. The invisible pollutants that are pumped into the air from exhausts, incinerators and power stations add to the natural and more visible pollutants such as forest fires and volcanoes. It is perhaps the mostly invisible nature of the manmade pollutants combined with the slowness of action on health which has lulled society into a false sense of security.

The London smogs of the 1950’s were visible and deaths were directly attributable to events leading to action being taken. Most of the fumes from vehicles are invisible, except perhaps from the odd cloud of black soot and the increasing haze over cities, which leads society to ignore the problems. The health impacts often take years to manifest, removing any obvious cause and effect that might stir society or politicians into action.

While some of us have been shouting loudly about the number of deaths resulting from air polluted with particulate matter from vehicles, a figure that leaped recently as the added effect nitrous oxides were understood almost doubling the UK deaths to over 50,000 each year, the media have remained mostly silent and it has only been the European Union that has legislated for air quality. The UK has largely ignored the pollution limits in defiance of the law with 194 local authorities  being recently exposed for exceeding the limits for nitrogen dioxide.

National government is equally culpable in concealing the real impacts of air pollution. The government released its consultation  on air quality at 11am on 12th September, only 30 mins before the announcement of the new Labour leader. The consultation just happened to contain the admission that mortality had been severely underestimated, a perfect time to bury bad news perhaps.

The apparent media blindness changed with the VW scandal. VW have done campaigners a service by being exposed as having cheated emissions testing in such a blatant fashion. The media now has something to hang stories on that is tangible and understandable and it is only now that people are beginning to question just how the air that we breathe may be making us all ill and what could be done about it.

Deaths through air pollution go far further than the obvious respiratory diseases often triggered by the nitrous oxides as the particulate matter in diesel exhausts can lead to heart attacks and strokes too.

Current estimates attribute 29,000  deaths each year to particulate matter and 23,500  to nitrous oxides, a total of 52,500 people dying prematurely each year. 144 people every day in the UK which is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every three weeks. Worldwide, the UN estimates 7 million  people die prematurely.

Let us not forget the wider impact of our polluting of air through the burning of fossil fuels, that of climate change which remains the largest threat to humanity and indeed all living creatures. We cannot continue to ignore the assault on our air and our lives, it is time to act.
With traffic at the core of the problem, local councils have little influence other than perhaps putting a few more buses on or increasing cycle paths. While these might reduce pollution by a fraction they will not have a significant impact. What is needed is real action by national government of which there has been none so far.

Investigating and prosecuting the car manufacturers who fix testing would be a useful first step, banning the sale of diesel cars should follow alongside significant increases in the cost of driving through taxation with the revenue used to support a modal shift.

Important too would be non-violent direct action campaigning to support the excellent work by groups such as the Healthy Air Campaign. It is time to wear gas masks on a protest to Downing St, time to stop buying diesel cars, time to shout loud and hard that the air must be clean. In short, it is time to act.

It is time to put some spirit into the clean air campaigns.

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