Article by Matthew Holder – British Safety Council
While increases in wealth from economic growth may allow us to spread our wings, environmental burdens can quickly bring us down to earth with a bump. When it comes to air pollution, more and more people are asking whether enough is being done to reduce it.
The high pollution levels we saw in March and April affecting London, Paris and other parts of western Europe seemed a surprise to many, a remnant of a previous age, of ‘pea soupers’ and gloomy streetlights in the 1940s, or more recent battles from the 1970s and 1980s about lead in petrol, acid rain or chlorofluorocarbons (CFC).
Perhaps we too hastily assumed that smog now only affects countries undergoing rapid industrialisation, like China. Or that the ‘green’ agenda is now merely about greenhouse gases which get the lion’s share of attention of policy-makers and activists. In fact the impact of atmospheric pollution is rapidly moving up the agenda of today’s global issues.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported on 25 March 2014 that in 2012 around seven million people died – one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure.
In an interview with Safety Management, Caroline Russell, local transport spokesperson for the Green party in London, commented that she has recently seen the public become
more aware of the situation.
“Since the start of 2014 people are more worried about the floods and air pollution. People are realising that we do have one planet, one set of resources, and we need to use them carefully. Plus, of course, last year we heard that diesel particulates are causing cancer and that is a game changer. We are talking about a public health situation.”
Recent figures from Public Health England put deaths in the UK due to long-term exposure to air pollution at 28,000 in 2010.
Air pollution comes from many different sources: factories, power plants, transport, heating and even wildfires. But, as Jon Goodbun explains, geography, in combination with weather, also plays a crucial part to amplify the effects of pollution. Jon is a senior lecturer in architecture at University of Westminster and runs the research lab Rheomode, which studies the linkages between architecture and the environment.
“We can see that Athens, for example, sits inside a mountainous ‘bowl’ that can trap pollution and produces a ‘heat-island’ effect. Or London’s position within the Thames Valley encourages pollution to ‘sit’ on the city, particularly when you have warm days, cold nights and little wind, as was the case in early March.”
We have known for a long time that air pollution threatens the health of human beings, animals, plants, even the soil we stand upon. The London smogs culminated in the London fog of 1952 with the deaths of at least 4,000 people and the passing of the Clean Air Act in 1956. Today, Frank Kelly, Professor of environmental health at Kings College, London, says that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk.
“The seven million figure is considerably greater than the previous WHO estimations and has roughly doubled since 2008.”
Some of this, he accepts, is because of better monitoring through satellites and using mathematical models. Fundamentally though, “it is about the global migration from the country to the city, exposing more people to pollution, in particular in India and China.That’s why the figures have jumped so dramatically.”
For the first time in history more people live in cities than in the country. The population of the world is being distributed across local cities connected – and dependent upon – a shared atmosphere. “Air pollution is a global issue because urbanisation is the unfolding global event of the present age,” he concludes.
Source: British Safety Council