London’s air pollution problem: Investigating the smog that takes six months off your life

How much danger are we really in?

A few weeks ago, Londoners were exposed to the highest levels of air pollution on the scale – something that happens more often than you’d think. The smog that intermittently engulfs the capital often comes with a health warning. In the most recent case that warning was so severe the government issued warnings to elderly people and children, and one government advisor even told people to stay indoors.

Pollution deaths

We’ve previously reported on the thousands of deaths per year in London linked to air pollution. London is home to the most air pollution-related deaths in the UK, with 8.3% of deaths of Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea residents having some connection to London’s polluted air.

For all of London, 7.2% of all deaths were related to air pollution in 2010 (the most recent year research is available for). This equals 3,389 deaths, and 41,404 life-years lost.

The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants in 2010 found air pollution takes the equivalent of six months off the life of every person in the UK. But obviously it affects some people much worse than others, depending on where you live and work and other health conditions. The committee has found it could be cutting some lives by as much as nine years.

This is not just a UK problem, though. Globally, the World Health Organisation linked seven million deaths to air pollution in 2012 – that’s one in eight people who died that year. In fact, the OECD predicts air pollution will become the biggest cause of premature deaths globally by 2050. This is above dirty water and poor sanitation.

The history

Although it’s often perceived as a modern problem, people have been writing about London’s air quality for centuries. The first air quality legislation was actually introduced as early as the 1300s, although the industrial revolution is the era most associated with London smog.

Our air has improved since Victorian times, but there is no denying we’re still suffering dangerous levels. As recently as the 1950s, healthy people were killed by London air alone.

While we’ve made progress since then, many people are arguing it has not been nearly enough.

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Why are we talking about air pollution now?

It’s only now researchers are beginning to fully realise the health impacts of even small levels of pollution. Campaigner Simon Birkett from Clean Air in London says the UK is dangerously underestimating the problem, in a similar way that the health concerns of smoking cigarettes were ignored in the past.

“It was 30 years ago that we found out about the dangers of smoking and, in October last year, the World Health Organisation certified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans. So in a sense, invisible air pollution is where smoking was 30 years ago, in terms of the certainty of the public health risk and the frankly total lack of public awareness about the issue,” he says.

So what can be done?

The best way of addressing the problem would be banning diesel vehicles from the most polluted places, similar to how coal was banned when people died from smog episodes in the 1950s, says Birkett.

“What we really need to be doing is what we were doing 60 years ago with the Clean Air Act, which is basically reengineering our cities to tackle the invisible very small air pollution particles, in the same way we engineered cities after the great smog of 1956.”

But that’s not as straightforward as it sounds, claims Matthew Pencharz, the Mayor of London’s senior advisor for energy and the environment. He says the mayor has already done many things to tackle pollution, like introducing green taxis and buses. Pencharz says Boris has plans to reduce the number of polluting vehicles in central London, but that’s not something that can happen overnight.

“We think it’s important that we give people a timeframe that is reasonable. We don’t think it would be reasonable to say, ‘OK guys, from tomorrow if you drive an older car you’ll be landed with a great big whopping charge’. You need to give people time to get ready.”

Boris Johnson does have plans to tackle the problem though. His office aims to introduce an ultra-low emission zone in central London, but the exact details are yet to be revealed, as it’s still being consulted on at City Hall. The mayor’s office said we’ll get an outline before Boris’s term is up, but it’s thought it will cover roughly the same area as the congestion zone, and ban the more polluting vehicles.

“London it’s the first city that’s ever tried to do this and it’s focussed on the area that has the greatest exposure - central London,” says Pencharz.

“We’re engaging with residents and industry about what they think is reasonable, and in due course we’ll go to the mayor with recommendations and it will go up to a formal consultation. It will be a real game-changer and really very exciting for us - not only to address air quality but also to stimulate the ultra-low emissions vehicle sector.”

But Birkett feels this will not be enough: “His ultra-low emission zone is too small, too weak and too late.”


Pollution cartoon

Picture credit:@CleanAirLondon @DaveyCartoonsSee more on Flickr

The figures seem to confirm Birkett’s argument. The UK has been subject to EU laws forcing member states to address pollution, but our apparently relaxed approach has meant we’ve missed some of the targets.

It’s widely reported that we’re set to be fined £300m by the European Commission for failing to cut levels of nitrogen dioxide (known as NOX) – a gas produced mainly by diesel engines, which can cause premature death and affect the growth of children’s lungs.

What’s most shocking about the failure to meet this target is that the EU’s aim wasn’t to get us to safe levels – simply “levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant negative impacts on human health and the environment”.

Pencharz says Johnson’s priority is to have the cleanest air in the EU’s megacities by 2020 – an attractive sounding target, but one that will, like the plan for the ultra-low emissions zone, fall into the term of the next London mayor.


Pollution cartoon

Picture credit:@CleanAirLondon @DaveyCartoonsSee more on Flickr

In fact, both the current mayor and the government have been criticised for not doing enough to help, and even accused of covering up the problem.

Birkett accuses the government of tampering with its local monitoring system to avoid issuing warnings.

“Last year the government was looking at scrapping local monitors, and we had monitors which were magically going offline two hours before European law would require the government to publish notifications to people.”

The government has blamed those incidents on various different faults and vandalism.

“The government has covered up this problem and would rather it just go away. We need to hold them accountable and for heaven’s sake we need to do something about this problem,” Birkett says.


In countries such as the US and Australia, pollution levels are a standard part of the weather forecast.  Birkett thinks this approach is needed in the UK.

“There’s no question people must be warned before these pollution episodes,” he says.

“Public Health England very laudably issued the first smog warning [in the recent case we wrote about] but Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] were completely absent, which was nothing short of a scandal.

“It just shows at the top of government these people are not engaging with this issue. They’d rather it went away and we need to ultimately hold them as accountable as we must hold Boris accountable,” he says.

London’s air quality is improving, but not as quickly as many would like, and it looks like it will take time for the effects of policy changes to show in the quality of London’s air – and on our life expectancies.

Tweet me your thoughts @robynvinter

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Make sure you read:

10 easy ways you can limit your exposure to air pollution today


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