Silent Killer: In London, Air Pollution Has Become a Matter of Life and Death

According to researchers, air pollution kills thousands in the city every year.
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Air pollution hangs over the heart of London in this view along the River Thames.

Air pollution hangs over the heart of London in this view along the River Thames.

Last year, London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced, "This is now a matter of life and death, and the government has one last chance to put it right."

Khan referred not to terrorism, gang violence, or drug usage, which have plagued cities and elicited scores of media attention. Instead, he spoke of a much more silent killer: air pollution.

According to researchers at Kings College London, air pollution kills roughly 9,500 people in the city on average every year. Another study, commissioned by the Khan, found that there are over 800 educational institutions in the city where pupils are exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide that breach the European Union's legal limits. Members of Parliament have even termed it a national health emergency.

In January of 2018, the city reached its legal air pollution limit for the whole year within only a few weeks. The Royal College of Physicians has reported that around 40,000 deaths in the United Kingdom are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution, and have linked it to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Children, and poorer communities, are often most at-risk for the dangers of air pollution.

"This is, without doubt, a public-health disaster," says Jonathan Grigg, a professor of environmental medicine at Queen Mary University of London and the lead author of the Royal College of Physicians' Report on the long-term effects of air pollution.

Air pollution is hardly a new challenge in London. The early 20th century earned the nickname the "age of smoke." In December of 1952, a cloud of smog appeared in London. At the time, the city relied on cheap coal to generate power to heat homes. A period of cold weather, combined with windless conditions, formed a thick layer of smog over the city. The smog reduced visibility to only a few feet, and residents inundated hospitals.

Four days later, the smog had already killed 4,000 people, and over 8,000 more would die as a result of complications in the coming months. Studies have shown that children who survived the incident were likely to develop asthma in later years. The event, known as the Great Smog, is arguably the largest environmental disaster in modern British history.

In response, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act of 1956. The Act mandated smoke control areas in which only smokeless fuels could be burnt, relocated power stations away from cities, and provided subsidies for households to convert from using coal to cleaner fuels. Perhaps most importantly, it showed that the federal government could effectively regulate pollution. By 1980, the government had considered the problem solved. The public was cautiously optimistic. People assumed that children were safe.

That, however, didn't last.

In recent decades, emissions from diesel motor vehicles have seen London's air quality re-emerge as a public safety hazard. Today's air is unlike before; it doesn't choke people while they walk down the street, but it may be just as dangerous.

According to David Fowler, an environmental physicist and fellow at the Royal Society of London, two of the most pressing and dangerous pollutants are particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. Particulate matter includes carbon emissions from engines, small bits of metal and rubber from engine wear and braking, and from road surfaces. These particles, which are often too small to be seen and give the impression of clean air, can settle deep within airways and lungs. Nitrogen dioxide is well-known to inflame the lining of the lungs and weaken immunity to lung infections.

Levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide air pollution in the U.K. have broken legal limits every year since 2010. In January of 2017, London's air registered higher levels of particulate matter than that of Beijing. Warmer temperatures, associated with climate change, have increased the risk of stagnant air and dangerous ozone levels. Studies named diesel vehicles the main culprit, but scientists say all vehicles, even electric ones, contribute to particulate matter.

"If you simply convert or replace a fossil fuel vehicle with an electric one, you're only reducing emissions a small amount," says Frank Kelly, the director of the Environmental Research Group at King's College London. "If we really want to reduce emissions we need many fewer vehicles on the road."

Though the effects of air pollution are largely inescapable for all the city's residents, children are particularly vulnerable. Studies have highlighted their risk of developing severe pneumonia or wheezing illnesses, and suppression of lung function.

"They're most at risk essentially because their lungs are less developed," says Daniela Fecht, a research fellow at London's Imperial College. "Because of their height, they're also usually closer to the emission source."

To communicate the severity of today's air pollution, the city's mayor, environmental non-profits, and scientists have honed in on the danger it poses to children's health. Friends of the Earth, Living Streets, and Client Earth—all environmental non-profits consulted for this article—operate air pollution campaigns aimed at children. Grigg and Fecht are only two of a growing number of academics conducting studies aimed at better understanding how air pollution harms children.

And in May of 2018, Khan announced the creation of a £1 million fund to improve air quality in 50 of the worst affected schools in the city. The fund may involve closing roads, moving playgrounds and school entrances, as well as technical measures such as improved ventilation systems and installing indoor air filters.

"I'm doing everything in my power to protect children in London from air pollution," Khan announced. "Air pollution is a national crisis that is putting the health of children at risk."

Timi Thompson, a Nigerian immigrant whose children attend school in East London, says the mayor's push is beyond necessary. "The situation is getting worse, and our kids cannot protect themselves," he says.

Children have become the unofficial martyrs in London's war against air pollution, and while that outsized focus from environmental groups has raised awareness across the capital, some worry that it obscures the effects of air pollution on marginalized groups. Immigrants and the city's poor, a large number of whom are non-white, live in some of the city's most polluted neighborhoods in East London. In a study conducted at Imperial College London, Fecht found that the worst air pollution levels in the country are found in ethnically diverse neighborhoods, defined as those where more than 20 percent of the population are non-white.

While public campaigns highlighting children abound, there are few that denote poor immigrants and people of color as disproportionate victims of air pollution.

I asked Muna Suleiman, campaigns officer at Friends of the Earth, why the organization's publicity focused primarily on children and not other vulnerable groups. She responded: "The narrative of protecting children's lungs is a very compelling one that anyone would find difficult to disagree with. When you're trying to develop a campaign that speaks to everyone, it's stronger to bank on something that is more universal and more uniting than dividing."

Holly Smith, a policy and research assistant at the organization Living Streets, agreed that focusing on children was a useful publicity tactic, but that the sole focus represented a "complete lack of intersectionality." She added: "I think it's right to talk about children, but it's not right to only talk about children."

Selina Nwulu, a writer and environmental activist in London, says she believes the lack of attention to minority communities is not new nor a surprise.

"If people were to pay attention to this, they'd have to pay attention to poor housing conditions and the highly polluted areas that many people of color live in, poor facilities they have access to, the lack of green spaces, and more broadly the segregated demographics and structural inequalities in this country," she wrote. "Environmental justice is not a stand-alone issue, and I don't think many people want to engage with this."

This story was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Rohan Naik is a Pulitzer Center student fellow from the Yale Program on Climate Change. More of Naik's reporting can be found here.

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