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The Battle For Clean  Air

We may not always notice it, but everyday people in congested UK cities are exposed to illegal levels of air pollution. Not only is this an immediate problem for our climate, but poses severe health risks to the general public. The time for an effective clean air strategy is long overdue - but what is being done?

In 1952 the UK government passed the Clean Air Act, after the devastating health effects of city smog became undeniable. The act tackled local and industrial coal burning which had led thousands of people to a premature death. Nowadays, the equivalent to the toxic clouds of the 1950s are the three different types of air pollution that are mostly released from car exhausts - namely particulate emissions, nitrous and sulphurous compounds. Unlike the thick smog of the past, today’s pollution a lot harder to notice - you can’t see it or smell it, but it’s most definitely there.

Flickr | Ref54While nobody is immune to the invisible killer, it is children and the elderly who are the hardest hit, as well as minority and underprivileged communities who live in particularly congested areas. Children’s lungs are affected by air pollution, causing them to have smaller lungs for life. This is caused by the most dangerous pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, which not only stunts lung growth but increases the risk of respiratory diseases such as asthma and lung cancer. In the UK, the levels of nitrogen dioxide have been above the legal level in almost 90% of urban areas since 2010. Parts of London reached their annual emissions limit only five days into 2017. This is largely due to diesel traffic, whose vehicles meet emissions limits in official lab tests, but actually emit a lot more when actually on the road. Having caused large numbers of premature deaths - estimates show around 40,000 a year in the UK - the issue was declared a public health emergency in April 2016.

Flickr | Minnesota DOT Without a clear government commitment to clean air, the future remains uncertain. It is perhaps because air pollution is not as visible as other pollutants that it has been so difficult to get the message of its devastating health and climate effects across. Whilst government action has taken place, it has been very limited - the introduction of several clean air zones in an attempt to tackle diesel pollution makes up only a small part of a much-needed clean air strategy. As a result of this inefficiency, the public campaign for clean air has gathered momentum, with many organisations criticizing government bodies for their insufficient pollution-capping policies. Environmental law firms such as ClientEarth, for instance, have thrice sued the UK government for what it has deemed as unlawful failing in the face of a major public health risk. Moreover, various organisations such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Clean Air in London have launched major clean air campaigns, encouraging people to spread information about this immediate threat and lobby institutions to formulate a meaningful action plan.

A lack of public information means that the progress for clean air is slow-moving. For instance, many don’t know that being inside a moving car can expose you to even higher levels of pollution, with exposure being 9 - 12 times higher. A moving car’s fans simply suck the vehicle’s exhaust straight back into it’s interior. Therefore, by leaving your car at home as much as possible, you’re not contributing to the problem and shielding yourself from higher pollution levels.

Ultimately, what we need is a conscious public and political shift towards cleaner public transport. By spreading information and offering alternative solutions, the attitude towards air pollution can change drastically.

By Laura Hallensleben - Online Journalism Intern

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