“Air Pollution – Time for Change”

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Doctors and medical bodies have become increasingly concerned about our failure to tackle air pollution effectively. Research shows that air pollution causes early death, and is associated with ill-health in many ways.

It is linked to problems in our lungs such as asthma and other respiratory symptoms, and to problems with our heart and blood from insulin resistance to heart attacks. Recent research evidence suggests an association with diabetes and even dementia.

Air pollution is calculated to cause 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK – that equates to 50 in Winchester.

Why do climate change campaigners work on air pollution?

Vehicles pollute. They emit gases and particulates which damage our health directly. They also emit greenhouse gases that damage our atmosphere and lead to climate change.  Climate change, of course, harms our health, and the health of life on earth, animal and vegetable as well as human.

Many of the steps that will improve air quality will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We need to stop burning fossil fuel for transport, heating, and energy production. Ending our reliance on the car will improve health short and long-term.

Climate change can feel too vast to tackle. Air pollution is local, and the impact of changes can be seen straight away as our air gets cleaner. So many of the local climate change groups including WinACC have decided to work on air pollution.

What is air pollution?

All vehicles produce “particulates” – basically dust and soot. These are referred to as PM10, PM2.5 or PM micro, which refers to their size. The smaller the number, the smaller and more harmful the particle is.

Burning diesel or petrol produces NO2 (often referred to as “Nox”).

The Royal College of Physicians estimates that 29,000 people die early each year from particle pollution, more than the 23,500 premature deaths attributed to NO2. The combined total is 40,000 because some people are harmed by both pollutants. NO2 levels are illegally high in most urban areas, allowing legal action to be taken, but small particle levels are not. The legal limit in England and Wales for particulate matter is two and a half times the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guideline set in 2005 and which has already been adopted in Scotland. Both the UK government and the WHO agree there is no safe level of small particle pollution.

 “Air Pollution – Time for Change” workshop

Because I chair Healthwatch Hampshire [http://www.healthwatchhampshire.co.uk/] as well as being an active member of WinACC and Hampshire Climate Action Network, I was very pleased to be invited to chair “Air Pollution – Time for Change”, a workshop on 17 November to share ideas and lessons and shape future local action.

Here I share a few suggestions about what we can do, building on the experiences of more than thirty activists from across Hampshire, Southampton and Portsmouth.

Working across boundaries

Working across boundaries was a key theme. Geographic boundaries are part of this – we’ll have much more success if all the districts in Hampshire speak to the County Council with a united voice. But working across the boundaries that divide people is just as important.

We need to see Council air quality officers as allies, not opponents. As one Environmental Health Officer at the meeting said with some passion, “We are doing the jobs we do because we care too!”. I’m developing ideas for on Clean Air Day 2019, Thursday 20 June, to co-ordinate activities across geographic and organisational boundaries in Hampshire and Solent. [https://www.cleanairday.org.uk/]

Two trade union reps came to the meeting to build links between community activists and the unions. The University and College Union [www.ucu.org.uk] launches a big campaign on air quality bringing together unions, health organisations and national environmental bodies in spring 2019.

Building partnerships with health

People at the event were keen to work with health professionals and we need to work with health professionals.

Action is vital. As the Joint Parliamentary Committee said[1], “The Government cannot continue to put public health at risk. It needs to place the protection of public health and the environment, rather than technical compliance or political convenience, at the centre of air quality policy.”

The joint committee report called for a new Clean Air Act and recommended that the Government should initiate a national health campaign to highlight the dangers of air pollution, including the fact that air quality can be far worse inside a vehicle than on the street. The full report is available on the House of Commons website.

We can reach out to respiratory consultants and to GP surgeries to make common cause. Show that breathing problems are more prevalent where air quality is worst from stats on COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – chronic obstruction of lung airflow that interferes with normal breathing and is not fully reversible, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema)  from the NHS, from Councils, and from Asthma UK.

We can also point out the costs of air pollution – costs to the NHS, and to employers when their staff need to take time off for illness.

“Air Quality and Health”, an event to mark Clean Air Day in June 2018, is an example of reaching across the boundaries. WinACC  brought together 14 partners including Churches Together in Winchester, Hampshire County Council, Healthwatch Hampshire, the University of Winchester and Winchester City Council [ see https://www.winacc.org.uk/air-pollution-and-health-in-winchester/ ]

I took the main findings from this workshop [https://www.winacc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Key-points-from-Clean-Air-Day-Winchester.pdf  ] to the Director of Public Health, Sallie Bacon. Public Health is now part of the County Council. She is responsible for the “Joint Strategic Needs Assessment”, which sets out the health priorities for Hampshire. With so much recent research that shows more and more ways in which air pollution damages our health, she promised to address air pollution in the next revision of the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment.

Air pollution in Winchester

Air quality is poor in Winchester City, both NOx and particulates. Winchester City Council is legally required to act to improve our air. The Council has a five-year Air Quality Action Plan approved Apr 26, 2017.

They promised to review this each year to check progress and decide whether more action is needed. Their 2018 Air Quality Action Plan Progress Report is on pages 15 – 30 of https://democracy.winchester.gov.uk/documents/g172/Public%20reports%20pack%2019th-Sep-2018%2016.30%20Cabinet.pdf?T=10)

The Winchester Movement Strategy launched this week [https://www.hants.gov.uk/aboutthecouncil/haveyoursay/consultations/winchestermovementstrategy  ] aims to improve air quality by reducing traffic in central Winchester.

For more information about air pollution in Winchester, see

Are electric vehicles the answer?

Not really.  Electric vehicles don’t emit greenhouse gases on our roads.  However, they pollute our air with particulates that contribute to ill-health, from their brakes, and from tyres hitting the roads.  A recent European commission research paper found that about half of all particulate matter comes from the wear on brake discs and tyres and by throwing up dust from roads.  If the electricity isn’t from a renewable source, electric vehicles also add to greenhouse gases emitted by the power stations that produce the electricity that powers electric vehicles.

If electric vehicles are powered by renewable energy, they are reducing the amount of renewable energy that’s available for other uses, so they still indirectly contribute to climate change.

If you have to drive, an electric vehicle is better than one fuelled by petrol or diesel, especially if you use renewable energy. But it’s better not to use a car at all.

Government adviser Prof. Frank Kelly agrees  The professor of environmental health at King’s College London and chair of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, official expert advisers to the government, is quoted in the Guardian “Our cities need fewer cars, not just cleaner cars.” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/aug/04/fewer-cars-not-electric-cars-beat-air-pollution-says-top-uk-adviser-prof-frank-kelly

More at “Climate Change and Transport: are electric vehicles a low-carbon solution?” by WinACC Transport Group – https://winacc.org.uk/sites/winacc.org.uk/files/attachments/Electric%20cars%20WinACC%20position%202014_03.pdf

Chris Holloway

19 November 2018

[1] Improving air quality: Fourth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Third Report of the Health and Social Care Committee, and Second Report of the Transport Committee of Session 2017–19; March 2018

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