Toxic Planet

By Malcolm Christie

AIR pollution is the world’s worst public health emergency. It directly causes some 40,000 deaths annually in the UK. Across the whole of Europe the figure is around 500,000 and for the whole world some seven million people die each year because of air pollution. And as with other social evils, it is the poor who suffer most.

Some air pollution comes about naturally, for example because of volcanic eruptions. The overwhelming majority of it, however, is caused by human activities. These include:

• burning solid fuel for heating and cooking

• industrial processes, including much electricity generation

• mining

• transport of people and material

• burning refuse

• agriculture, especially the use of manure and other fertilisers.

Most of the effects of these activities are local to where they are carried out. Some forms of pollution can however be carried over large distances in the air and are subject to chemical reactions, causing further pollution.

If society and the world economy could be reorganised to greatly reduce the air pollution resulting from these activities, it would also make a major contribution to addressing the climate emergency.

Bodies such as the World Health Organisation are commendably vocal in pointing out the consequences of air pollution on human health. Despite this, there is a disappointing lack of concerted action to address the issue.

Types of air pollution

The UK government has some useful information on the website of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It includes a five-page piece entitled ‘What are the causes of air pollution?’, which lists and expands upon the following:

• particulate matter (below 2.5 micrometers and that between 2.5 and 10 micrometers)

• oxides of nitrogen
• ozone
• sulphur dioxide
• polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

• benzene
• 1,3-butadiene
• carbon monoxide (CO)
• lead
• ammonia

The government paper also goes into detail on how each of these is caused and the effects on human health and the wider environment. The smaller particulate matter, below 2.5 micrometers, is the most clearly damaging in terms of ill health and mortality, through effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Where is air pollution worst?

The 50 worst cities in the world for air pollution include more than 20 in India, eight in China and three in Iran. This is presumably associated with the recent industrialisation and the growth of motor transport in those respective countries.

The UK currently has legal limits on small particle concentrations, which were originally set by the EU. Although these are less stringent than those recommended by the WHO, regrettably most British cities and many towns fail to meet them by large margins.

The air inside cars is often more polluted than what you experience by walking in the street. However, The Guardian reported a study by the Calor Gas company which stated that walking in Oxford had comparable effects to smoking 60 cigarettes per day!

Inside the home can be dangerous, especially where there are open fires. Dust and the use of cleaning products also affect domestic air quality. Many people spend most of their lives indoors.

Knowledge such as this can help some fortunate individuals to minimise their exposure to some of the worst air pollution. But of course it would be much better for everyone if less pollution was created in the first place!

What can be done?

The problem needs to be addressed at many levels, locally, nationally and globally. Take local authority level, for starters. City-wide schemes already exist in London, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Milan and Singapore to charge some or all motor vehicles for travelling in certain areas. These have been effective in reducing congestion and air pollution, especially where public transport is already good or simultaneously improved. They have also given rise to improvements in journey times and greenhouse gas emissions.

Friends of the Earth have published a useful paper on this entitled An Eco Levy for driving: cut carbon, clean up toxic air and make our towns and cities liveable. You can easily find it on their website. It elaborates on how these ideas might be much more widely implemented in future.

At national level, it would help a lot if governments were more consistent in taxing or punishing damaging activities and in subsidising or otherwise encouraging beneficial activities. Obviously this entails judging the damage or benefit of activities in terms of their effects on the wider population, not just the richest few.

For example, the government has been wrong to reduce subsidies to renewable electricity generation whilst encouraging fossil fuel extraction and providing subsidies to nuclear power generation.

As another example, it is wrong to allow road transport fuel duty to effectively decline as vehicles become more fuel efficient over time. And it is crazy to let aviation burn high sulphur fuel above our heads, free of tax. (Readers are invited to send in further suggestions of this kind.)

At a global level, unfortunately some of worst offenders in respect of air pollution are multinational corporations. The greatest possible degree of international cooperation will be required to prevent their worst excesses. The Air Pollution Emergency needs people throughout the world to be better informed and then to press for the necessary improvements at home and abroad.

Malcolm Christie is Treasurer of the AGS

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