Join The Dots Ep 5 – The Air We Breathe

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In this episode of Join The Dots, Real Media discusses the health effects of and possible solutions to air pollution as London breaks its annual air pollution limit in just the first month of 2018

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Story Transcript

KAM SANDHU: Hello and welcome to Join The Dots. I’m Kam Sandhu.

MATT KENNARD: And I’m Matt Kennard.

KAM SANDHU: Today, we’re going to be talking about air pollution. Now, in the first month of 2018, London has already broken its yearly air pollution limit. That means that for 330 days of the year, we are breathing illegal levels of toxic air.

One of the groups that is taking the government to task over this is ClientEarth, who on February the 21st won a ruling that the government’s plans to deal with air pollution are illegal. They’re shabby rewrites of previous strategies and they’re not sufficient. This is the third time that ClientEarth has taken the government to court over its plans to deal with air pollution and it’s the third time that they’ve won.

In 2018, air pollution is estimated to kill 9,000 people. Across the UK, it will be 50,000. It has its worst effects on children and we spoke to Chris Griffiths, a doctor from Doctors Against Diesel, about his recent research.

CHRIS GRIFFITHS: I would say it’s an emergency. An important element of this is adverse effects on children’s growth, the increased risk that they face of developing illnesses, particularly asthma, wheezing disorders and the effect on lung growths. The way that we did this study was to visit primary schools in East London, and we made detailed measurements of children’s lung capacity, eight- to nine-year-old children. Each year, we took a new sample of children, and so we compared the lung capacity of those children as they spent time in the air quality of their schools and the roads and their homes.

Has it had an impact? I think it has had an impact. The final results of that study are being published at the moment, but we published interim results as we went along. I think the findings that we had, which were that the children that were living in the areas with the worst air quality had restrictions in lung growth. So, this was a finding that corroborated research that had been done elsewhere in the world.

So, California, big studies over the last 10, 15 years, Boston in the United States, a number of studies in Europe had also studied this potential adverse effect on lung growth. So, what we found in a sense wasn’t anything new, that traffic emissions could stunt the growth of children’s lungs, but it was important that we found it in London.

KAM SANDHU: That was Chris Griffiths talking to us about how air pollution stunts children’s lungs.

MATT KENNARD: But it’s not just children who are affected by it. Here’s Chloe Harewood, a Londoner who’s been suffering the health effects of living in the capital.

CHLOE HAREWOOD: About a year and a half ago, I noticed that walking down the street was beginning to get quite unpleasant for me. I was beginning to become much more aware of the pollution around me and I started getting other symptoms as well. I’ve been feeling very unwell for quite a long time and one of the symptoms that was particularly distressing for me was hives and was getting sort of hives, rashes, and lumps on my skin that would just come and go, all different parts of my skin, different parts of my body. And that’s a sign that there’s inflammation in the body.

A lot of my blood tests would be coming back as there being inflammation in my body. Went to see various doctors, allergists and they weren’t able to shed any light as to what my problems were or to what was going on. And I eventually was fortunate enough to see a doctor who is an environmental specialist and she was able to arrange tests for me that revealed high levels of benzene and high levels of nickel.

And I was diagnosed with a sensitivity particularly to those two chemicals and they’re both found in cigarettes and in car fumes. I’ve never smoked in my life. I live in Central London and I’m constantly surrounded by traffic. I work in Central London and I can only put it down to the constant exposure to this filthy air that I’m having to breathe in.

KAM SANDHU: That was Chloe Harewood, a Londoner who’s experiencing the effects of air pollution. Matt, you’re a Londoner-

MATT KENNARD: I am.

KAM SANDHU: … with a small child.

MATT KENNARD: I am.

KAM SANDHU: How do you feel about air pollution? Do you have any concerns about it?

MATT KENNARD: You know what? Before I had a child, it really wasn’t a concern of mine. I saw the newspaper reports about London being pretty bad compared to other European capitals but it wasn’t a major issue. But as soon as I had a kid, I noticed how bad it was because the thing about having a kid in a pram as well, when buses go past, they’re literally at the level of the exhaust pipe. So, it’s even worse for kids in prams than it is for adults. So, that happening, I don’t think I’d ever move out of London but if I ever did, that would be a major reason.

And it’s getting worse and worse. I used to live in Mexico City, which is even a level up because there’s 25 million people living there, and it’s surrounded by mountains, and literally you can’t go for a run in the city. It’s not like that now in London but if it continues, there’s no reason that it can’t get progressively worse and we end up with a Mexico-City-style scenario, which would be awful and genuinely would probably cause some sort of emigration out of London by parents because it is a major concern.

And I did see the news recently that the levels outside schools of air pollution are insanely high and it has a massive impact on the kids’ lungs and asthma and all these different ailments that are affiliated to it. So, yeah, it’s a massive concern as a parent.

KAM SANDHU: I guess the thing is also that you don’t see it. You can probably feel it if you’ve been here for a while or if you come out from somewhere else but it’s in the air, and so, perhaps that helps with people not paying much attention to it, but-

MATT KENNARD: The other thing is also it’s one of those things where you don’t see the results immediately. So, my son doesn’t cough because of air pollution, but you don’t know what effect that’s having in his long term. His lungs are growing, obviously, every day now, and the impacts of pollution will hit 20 years down the line or 60 years down the line, who knows? So, it is worrying to that extent, and that is, as you say, a reason why people aren’t as concerned as they should be about this because we can’t see the results tomorrow or next week. We’ll have to wait a long time, and it might be too late by then.

KAM SANDHU: Exactly. You mentioned Mexico there, but the worst place in the world at the moment, the unenviable mantel of this is Delhi, India. And when cold temperatures occur and there’s slow winds, there’s more pollutants that become airborne, which doctors say is the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes a day. The Delhi chief minister said that it was like a gas chamber.

The most dangerous kinds of particles are something called PM2.5, which are pollutants that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers. That means that they’re small enough to get past your usual filters and permeate your blood–brain barrier. And these can be carcinogenic chemicals including lead, arsenic, and mercury, so we can kind of see what kind of dangers are there.

MATT KENNARD: The UK also has these particles. And in fact, London breached global standards across the capital for PM2.5 with most areas exceeding levels by at least 50% in October 2017. This meant that every person in London was breathing excess levels of the most dangerous particles that you can find.

KAM SANDHU: So, what can be done about it? One of the main drivers in the UK is transport, and the government could actually be doing quite a lot.

MATT KENNARD: Germany is also trying to reduce its air pollution and is making much more radical moves, such as offering free public transport and banning diesel cars, which are popular in the country. The car lobby is impacting progress. Greenpeace’s Unearthed investigative unit discovered recently that the UK car industry lobbied the EU to weaken new carbon limits.

KAM SANDHU: The industry’s ability to access our politicians and to be able to lobby them to affect policies is far more than the public gets access sometimes. We spoke to Hannah Gardiner from AirPublic about how radically our system needs to change.

HANNAH GARDINER: Mobility is going to change. It’s just going to change. The technology is coming. It’s here, it’s being tested, it’s just about how it’s going to be widespread implemented. For example, in Norway, they now have 35% of people using electric cars, and that was due to some progressive policy around vehicle taxation, around clever investment in infrastructure to ensure that there were charging points everywhere so that people could make that transfer without worrying about where they were going to charge. Some of those things can happen here, and that would help a lot.

In terms of people’s decisions themselves, I mean, that’s more tricky, and I think it’s going to be generational. Cars being a status symbol, the convenience of moving in that way, I think once you’re in it, it’s very hard to change. I think that the next generation coming in are the people who, the expected trends, it’s like shared ownership instead of owning things yourself, is convenience to be looked at in a completely different way. That’s such a mindset, I think it’s going to be hard for people who have done the same thing for 20 or 30 years.

In terms of policy, the National Planning and Policy Framework needs to take air pollution into account more because what needs to happen is people need to make different decisions, businesses need to do business differently, and you need the infrastructure to back it up. The National Planning and Policy Framework taking air pollution more seriously would be a good start towards shaping that infrastructure, but it’s driven by massive companies.

Delivery companies are global. Car companies that are selling cars are global. It’s not a local problem in that sense. It’s localized and, anyway, the way it needs to be dealt with is different in each place, but the overarching drivers, the companies that are selling these vehicles, making these deliveries, they’re global. And I think that it needs so much more leadership on a higher, wider level in order to be able to try and deal with that.

KAM SANDHU: That was Hannah Gardiner talking to us about how our transport systems need to change.

MATT KENNARD: Government decisions and austerity policies act as an obstacle to confronting this problem. If we don’t have the data to understand what is happening, we can’t act on it. Here’s Mat Hope from DeSmog explaining how austerity and cuts to council budgets mean holes in this kind of reporting.

MAT HOPE: DeSmog UK did a investigation earlier this year looking at local authorities’ air pollution strategies. We looked at 77 local authorities across the Midlands, predominantly in constituencies that voted for Brexit. And what we found was that local authorities, largely because they are under such severe pressure with budget cuts, are really struggling to report on air pollution problems. Now, obviously if you don’t report an air pollution problems, you can’t then work out solutions to those problems, so that’s a major, major problem. We found that just under half of those had gaps in their reporting. So, something like 34 local authorities hadn’t managed to produce a report that the government requires them to produce.

We’ve done a little bit of extra digging on this to try and work out why this is, and we discovered that’s because a lot of those local authorities have had to either squeeze their teams, cut staff, merge those staff into other teams within their departments. And that means the expertise and the time simply isn’t available for them to be able to address this issue. Again, it goes back to showing the government isn’t taking this problem seriously enough. The government’s national plan continues to put the onus on local authorities to deal with this problem, but they can’t.

KAM SANDHU: That was Mat Hope from DeSmog and you can see all of these interviews in full at realmedia.press. I think one of the points we can take away from what he said is that the car industry won’t be suffering from these kinds of cuts to their budgets. They will put lobbying and focusing on politicians and regulation as a priority of the things that they tackle, which means that they have much more influence over those kinds of policy.

MATT KENNARD: There’s also a lot of people in the transport industry who are being affected by this, and they all lose out when companies battle regulation and safety measures. Couriers, bus drivers and taxi drivers are all at risk. We spoke to Moe, a London bus driver who talks about how the lack of data is leaving bus drivers at risk, and also Peter, who had to give up work as a taxi driver because he developed ME, chronic fatigue syndrome, as a result of working as a taxi driver and the air pollution he was exposed to.

MOE: I think it’s quite alarming being on the road, on London’s congested road with being behind a truck or another bus that’s emitting diesel or a taxi emitting diesel, that we are constantly breathing pollution. Constantly. I mean, how many bus drivers have had cancer because of it? We don’t know. There’s no statistics, there’s no surveys, nothing has been done with bus workers, and it’s quite shocking that it could be done to prevent any illnesses.

I’ve always been conscious about air pollution and we’ve many times raised it with our employers about air pollution but there seems to be lack of interest of air pollution with bus workers. You can’t see pollution obviously, but I feel what would be important is to have every bus, not every bus, but every other bus to be fitted with a monitor to monitor air pollution, so we can see how much pollution is being dragged into the buses. That will help us identify how much pollution we’re contaminated with.

Now, bus companies have been looking into technology which is to prevent drivers from exceeding speed limits, coming close to other vehicles. But I think what we need to focus on is in technology that will help identify air pollution on buses. What would be a benefit for bus workers is a massive reduction of air pollution to ensure that we have a future and we live longer, that we’re not breathing in contaminated air. It’s not only good for bus workers, it’s also good for everyone, the public and everyone else, also passengers.

PETER KING: The exposure to this affected my breathing. Before I was formally diagnosed, everything about my body just started to slow down. It didn’t just happen overnight, the ME. It gradually happened, but the trigger as so far I’m concerned is the exposure to toxic fumes working in London.

MATT KENNARD: As well as ClientEarth, there’s been another group trying to force the government into doing something about air pollution.

KAM SANDHU: Stop Killing Londoners has been escalating their campaign in a bid to get a meeting with Mayor Sadiq Khan about their demands. We’ve been following them during this campaign. Here’s a look at the kinds of things they’ve been up to.

SPEAKER: In a democratic society, disruption is an essential part of the democratic process. If you want to have a demonstration, you’re going to be disrupting traffic. If you want to go on strike, then the customers of your company are going to be disrupted. That is in itself is not the issue. The issue is, is it justified in order to bring about a more just and democratic society? And in this case, we think it’s a no-brainer. That there’s thousands of children having their anatomies disfigured, if there’s thousands of people dying because the car industry doesn’t want to do the right thing, then it’s the classic example of where civil disobedience is justified.

SPEAKER: Clearly, it’s very inconvenient for drivers when we stop them. So, what I was doing was trying to explain to them what we’re doing and offering them a leaflet and telling them that we would only be holding them up for a few minutes and apologizing for the inconvenience.

SPEAKER: You have brought this part of London to a halt.

KAM SANDHU: That was Stop Killing Londoners, and remember that if you are in London, you can help or join that campaign. And there is a consultation that London Mayor Sadiq Khan has put out and you can have your say up until February the 28th.

Seeing some of those tactics that have been undertaken by Stop Killing Londoners, do you think they’re justified?

MATT KENNARD: I think definitely they are justified, especially when you put into context that ClientEarth brought that case against the government, and the court found the government were breaking the law and the fact that they weren’t doing enough to combat air pollution. So, in that context, of course people taking the issue into their own hands and breaking the law is justified in my opinion.

KAM SANDHU: And they’ve had three years.

MATT KENNARD: Yeah, they’ve had three years. Also, to add to that just generally that history is littered with cases where activists and dissidents have had to break the law to challenge unjust policy and unjust law itself and I think that in this case, definitely that fits with that lineage. So, yes. All power to them.

KAM SANDHU: Well, that’s all we’ve got time for this time. Remember that you can have your say in that consultation until February the 28th. And we’ll be back next time.

MATT KENNARD: We’ll leave you with Peter King’s message for Sadiq Khan.

PETER KING: I would say to Sadiq Khan, who is the son of a bus driver I believe, that his father’s job or occupation was a worthwhile and worthy one. And he operated at a time when there weren’t alternatives to diesel or petrol. There are now. And it’s essential that society looks at this situation and makes immediate changes, and not to disregard a certain percentage of deaths as being collateral damage because that’s people’s lives. That’s what would be my message.