IIt was news that toxic particles of air pollution had been found in the lungs and brains of unborn babies to do so. I am childless by choice and have almost as much maternal instinct as Matilda‘s Miss Trunchbull, yet this disturbing new quest has literally stopped me in my tracks. The dystopian future that climate activists and scientists had warned us about suddenly felt ominously close and made me want to flee the capital for rolling green pastures.
Groundbreaking research from the University of Aberdeen and Hasselt University in Belgium is far from the first staggering data on the impact of pollution in dense urban spaces. In July, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants found that air pollution is likely to increase the risk of developing dementia and accelerate ‘cognitive decline’ in older people. Scientists at Colorado University, Boulder also found a link in September between inhaled pollutants and an increased risk of allergies, diabetes and obesity in children. An October study found that air pollution could be contributing to obesity in middle-aged women, while the World Health Organization (WHO) warned in early November that world mayors must act now to reduce obesity. pollution or more people will die.
With 3,000 parks and green spaces, 47% of which make up the material, London is one of the greenest cities in Europe. The Mayor of London’s environmental strategy includes a commitment to “make London 50% green by 2050” and to make London’s transport system carbon neutral. However, last week, pollution levels from cars in the city hit their highest level since the pandemic began in 2020. As cars stopped and people were forced to stay indoors as part of the national lockdown, nature he breathed a sigh of relief as carbon emissions from public transport and factories came to a standstill. Now, it appears that one of the few good things born of the pandemic is over. As for me, I’m concerned about my bedroom window opening.
Since time immemorial, people have flocked to capital cities in search of work, love, new beginnings, and the freedom and anonymity such urban spaces can provide. As a teenager growing up on a council estate in northern England, I fantasized about escaping into the great smoke. London represented possibilities and potential: of new people, places, opportunities and – yes – glamour! It meant the freedom to be and love whoever I want, a not insignificant attraction that continues to attract people considered “other” by mainstream sensibilities. It’s also a big part of why I keep staying.
But now? Twenty-two years after I first moved to the city to study, the housing market is in a slump, the gap between rich and poor is growing at breakneck speed, and we are advised against exercising outdoors due to low levels” very high” levels of pollution. The worst part is that people die.
According to WHO, air pollution kills about seven million people worldwide each year, while 99% of the world breathes air that exceeds WHO guideline limits. While people in the majority of the world experience the highest exposure, it’s also happening closer to home. Nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah died in 2013 of an asthma attack caused by air pollution. Raised just 25 meters from the South Circular Road, a major traffic route that bypasses the capital, she suffered multiple seizures and was hospitalized 27 times before dying. In 2020, a coroner ruled that Ella had been exposed to “excessive” levels of pollution, making her the first person in the UK to have it listed as the cause of death.
Following the landmark inquiry, the coroner recommended the UK bring its ‘much higher’ threshold for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – a type of harmful air pollutant – in line with the World Health Organization to reduce the number of deaths from air pollution. The 2021 Environment Law introduced a requirement for the government to bring forward at least two air quality targets by October 2022. These include a commitment to reduce the average annual level of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the ambient air, as well as a long-term target which, according to the government, “will encourage long-term investment and provide certainty for businesses and other stakeholders”.
In a statement to parliament on 28 October, however, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Therese Coffey, announced that the government would not be able to meet these targets “as required by law ”. You added: ‘I would like to reassure this House and all stakeholders that we will continue to work at a rapid pace to develop draft statutory instruments as soon as possible.’ It’s almost as if an issue that disproportionately impacts those living in poverty isn’t a priority.
As the government continues to drag its feet on an issue that London Mayor Sadiq Khan has described as “a matter of life and death,” London residents continue to breathe air so dirty that it violates international law.
While the city continues to be a source of inspiration, pleasure and freedom, it is increasingly difficult to ignore the warning signs that, like a bad relationship, it is becoming ever more detrimental to our health. All who want to come to this exhilarating place should have this opportunity, without having to worry that an invisible health hazard could leave them with irreversible damage to their well-being. Urgent top-down intervention measures are needed to keep this special city safe.
Looking down the car-clogged arteries of the city I’ve fallen in love with, I puff on my inhaler and dream of clean, grassy lawns.