Campaigning for clean air in London

Politicians are being urged in other ways to boost efforts to improve urban air quality.  The unique Clean Air in London campaign, of which Camfil Farr is the first Gold Sponsor, is building public understanding of the dangers of harmful IAQ. Camfil Farr recently met with Simon Birkett, CAL’s Founder and Director.

Clean Air London

Here’s the interview:

Why did you set up the Campaign for Clean Air in London?

Simon Birkett: While campaigning with local residents on environmental issues I found it impossible to persuade politicians to do things they don’t want to do and don’t have to do. In 2006, we discovered ambient (or outdoor) air pollution was well over twice legal limits and realised the issues were similar to those we were already addressing.

A leading member of the European Parliament suggested I formalise the campaign to maximise its impact. It now operates within a legal entity, Clean Air in London (CAL).

Is air quality a problem in London (and elsewhere)?

SB: Air pollution is much worse than most of us have realised. It regularly exceeds twice World Health Organization guidelines near London’s busiest streets. The Mayor of London has estimated that 4,267 deaths were attributable to long-term exposure to dangerous airborne particles in London in 2008 at an average additional loss of life of 11.5 years.

Separately, CAL found over 1,100 schools near London’s busiest roads, after learning that proximity to such roads might be responsible for up to 30% of all new cases of asthma in children. By anyone’s standards, there is an invisible public health crisis in London and other large cities.

How does indoor air quality fit in?

SB: Indoor air quality (IAQ) can be much worse than ambient air quality (AAQ). Without filters, up to 50% (and much more in some cases) of air pollution found indoors comes from outside. IAQ is further affected by:tobacco smoke from indoor smoking; combustion (such as gas cooking or candles); water systems, leaks and condensation; and substances emitted from building materials, furnishings and cleaning agents. According to the Mayor of London, domestic gas consumption (from cooking and heating) in turn contributed 22% to ambient air emissions of oxides of nitrogen in London in 2008. With today’s European citizens spending – on average – over 90% of their time indoors, there is an opportunity to protect people and reduce pollution.

Why has this crisis happened?

SB: Recent governments have been complacent after earlier successes primarily in the 1960s and 1990s. They have largely ignored evidence appearing over the last 15 years that long-term exposure to air pollution causes as many premature deaths as we thought occurred during the Great Smog of 1952 (due to short-term exposure).

Governments have preferred to pursue technology “silver bullets” rather than alert people to the risks and encourage them to change their behaviour.

Could the public health crisis get worse?

SB: Without action, yes. There are powerful trends towards; population growth and super-cities; increasing consumption and a desire to travel; and rising temperatures and congestion. That makes it more important we tackle air pollution now and set ourselves on a more sustainable path.

How can poor air quality be addressed in London and elsewhere?

SB: Tackling a crisis of this magnitude requires political will, technology and behavioural change. Outside we need fewer and cleaner vehicles in the most polluted parts of our cities and stricter building standards. We need to protect ourselves and reduce pollution for ourselves and others, both outside and indoors. We need to tackle air pollution at its sources (e.g. with filters) rather than mask it through short-term artificial offsets. London schools would be a good place to start.

Why has CAL not campaigned about IAQ if it is such a serious issue?

SB: CAL has not had the resources until Camfil Farr’s sponsorship to tackle IAQ as well as AAQ. In earlier days, it might have been difficult to explain that IAQ can be much worse than AAQ. The campaign is maturing now and so I am excited to be working with the world leader in air filtration to tackle a risk I have always been keen to address.

How can Camfil Farr help CAL?

SB: By becoming CAL’s first Gold Sponsor, Camfil Farr is supporting a new campaign to build public understanding of IAQ, initially in London, with advice for people on protecting themselves (adaptation) and reducing pollution for themselves and others (mitigation).

How can CAL help Camfil Farr?

SB: By building understanding of air quality in London, CAL hopes to do much more than just create awareness, education, information or knowledge. When people understand something, they really “get it” and things change. When I’ve learnt more about IAQ, I would like to give a campaigner’s perspective on IAQ in a future AirMail.

Where next over the three, five and 10 years?

SB: There is a great opportunity to change London and show how wider air pollution and sustainability issues can be tackled everywhere. Short-term, we need to protect health and ensure full compliance with air pollution laws by 2015; long-term, we need sustainable solutions like electric vehicles and zero emission buildings in our cities.

We are highlighting the issues surrounding indoor air quality, air pollution and its effect on human health. Please have a look around, subscribe to our feed or subscribe to the IAQ blog by email and comment on any posts that you find interesting! We want to hear from you.

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