Last Monday 11th February we were treated to a visit by National Friends of the Earth London Campaigner Jenny Bates, for a talk on air quality. With our new campaign let’s Get Moving starting to get some legs (excuse the pun!), this was a very insightful discussion to be apart of, and has armed us with even more knowledge to add depth to this new and exciting campaign.

It started off with Jenny giving an informal talk about the issues with air pollution. She used her experience campaigning and blogging in the big smoke that is London, and related relevant research that has been done there, to the slightly less big smoke that is Birmingham. Just to get things going, it was interesting to hear just how much of a health and social impact it has. 

Studies have shown that air pollution is only second nationally to smoking in terms of premature deaths. making it a bigger problem than obesity, heart disease etc. This obviously costs the government a lot, from our own research, we know that Birmingham spends £182 million a year in treating hospital admissions due to air quality. Jenny was great at explaining why it is such a health problem, citing the danger of the particulates and chemicals that are inhaled.

These include; nitrogen dioxide NO2, PN10 and PN2.5, and are caused by the burning of fossil fuels normally found in the process of internal combustion. I’m not going to delve into the science as much as Jenny was able to, but there are loads of useful links throughout this article that I recommend reading if you want a deeper understanding of some of the health problems these particulates can cause. For the most part you can not see these particulates unless there are and extremely high number in some cases, but a good rule of thumb is if you can smell or taste exhaust fumes whilst walking around, the air quality is going to be very bad.

Getting people out of cars and cutting traffic is a key goal in slashing emissions, but is also an uphill struggle. The regular rebuttal to the walk/cycle rather than drive argument in the context of air pollution, is to say that ‘well I’m better off in my car, not breathing it in’. However a study carried out in London, comparing the effects of air pollution between various jobs, showed that ambulance drivers were the most affected, above couriers on bicycles.

Another point Jenny mentioned was that the people most affected were those from poorer backgrounds, who tend to not own a car themselves, but live in houses situated on main roads and more built up areas. I myself walk alongside busy roads most days and I do notice the change in the air quality that I breath as I’m approaching main roads, compared to my daily frolic through the park.

One of the biggest scandals relating to this issue, is that it in scientific and political circles it IS well known about. There are EU laws in place setting air pollution limits for all cities and the World Health Organisation , which will now go by WHO with only a slight hint of irony, have called for the EU to double their restrictions, citing that the current ones are not safe. The problem is that by and large these are being ignored.

Jenny shared this chart with us that shows the emissions of each city and region in the UK, and the first thing to note is that there is a lot of red. As many people know red doesn’t tend to mean good in terms of charts and graphs, which is the case here. All the places with red are the ones that have exceeded their targets, which WHO have said aren’t stringent enough to start with. The set date to reach these targets was 2010, but each place could apply for extensions to 2015. Looking at the chart Birmingham target date is 2020, which means that the council was not doing anything that made the EU think that it could reach their required target by 2015. On a side note London’s target date is 2025, take from that what you will.

I’m afraid I could go on and on if I include everything that we talked to Jenny about, so I encourage you to use the links below to find out more. The main feeling we got from Monday, was that air quality is an extremely important issue, that needs to get more coverage. Also much much more is needed to be done, if we want to live in a clean city.

Useful links and other campaigns: