OPINION - Another generation of Londoners condemned to breathing toxic air

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

The typical way to open a leader column about air pollution is to call it a ‘silent killer’. I should know, I’ve done it a lot. Except, on reflection, that isn’t quite right or at least it hasn’t been for some time.

We know that prolonged exposure to toxic air – the nitrogen dioxide oxide and particulate matter produced by transport, heating and industry – is directly linked to various diseases. Not only asthma but strokes, heart disease and lung cancer. Indeed, the annual mortality of anthropogenic air pollution in the UK is roughly equivalent to between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths every year. From breathing.

The impact of poor air quality, particularly on children, was most chillingly brought to public attention by the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013, who subsequently became the first person in the UK to have air pollution recorded as a cause of death.

Ella lived near the South Circular in Lewisham. Air pollution is highly localised and unevenly distributed. Analysis commissioned by City Hall last year found that communities with higher levels of deprivation, or a higher proportion of people from a “non-white ethnic background”, are more likely to be exposed to elevated levels of air pollution.

The government theoretically recognises the problem. The Office for Health Improvement & Disparities calls air pollution in Britain “the largest environmental risk to public health“.

Despite this, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey has admitted the Government missed a deadline to set new post-Brexit environmental targets including on toxic air. Indeed its own watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, has criticised the delay and warned that targets are too weak.

Plans to set a goal for PM2.5 – particles so small that toxins can enter the bloodstream and get lodged in the heart, brain and other organs – have been postponed until 2040. The EU, for its part, has laid out its intention to meet the goal by 2030.

This discrepancy has no scientific basis and makes a mockery of claims by ministers that Brexit would not lead to a watering down of environmental standards. Actually, in 2018 then Environment Secretary Michael Gove went further, telling the Today programme Britain would have “higher environmental standards” outside the EU. Perhaps Mr Gove might, like John Gummer and the beef burger, care to take a dip in a central London water spot and repeat that claim.

This is a public health story but it is also a Brexit one. In 2016, it was not immediately obvious from the Vote Leave campaign that taking back control would mean permanently reducing the productive capacity of the UK economy, ceding stock market top spot to Paris, knowingly signing bad trade deals with Australia or breathing in rotten air for longer.

In the comment pages, Nimco Ali says British feminists must take hope from the defeat of US ‘pro-lifers’. While Home & Property Editor Prudence Ivey warns something has to give in this infernal London housing rental market.

And finally, one to bookmark. Culture Editor Nancy Durrant on the best exhibitions to see in London right now.

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