Why Let’s Get Moving?

Birmingham Friends of the Earth is launching a multi-pronged campaign to raise awareness of the dangerous and illegal levels of air pollution in our city and encourage more people to start using active modes of transport. In case you missed it, which was easily done unless you happened across an article in the Birmingham Mail, Guardian or Financial Times last month, the UK Government is failing in its duty to protect the residents of this city from the most harmful effects of air pollution, according to a Supreme Court ruling on May 1st.

The problem

Air pollution is a UK-wide problem, with the limits for nitrogen dioxide set by the European Commission’s air quality directive having been exceeded in 40 of the 43 zones in the United Kingdom in 20101. This is despite having an enormously negative impact on the everyday lives of city dwellers.

Back in 1978, a joint working party report on lead pollution around Gravelly Hill, raised awareness of the seriously damaging effects of leaded petrol. However, the advent of unleaded petrol has by no means eradicated all of the health effects of air pollution2. Whilst carbon dioxide gets a lot of headlines, ground-level urban air pollution, which includes nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter, is often ignored.

These different pollutants cause different but equally damaging health problems. Nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone gases irritate the airways of the lungs, increasing the symptoms of those suffering from lung diseases and may aggravate asthma symptoms. They also increase susceptibility to viral infections and irritate the mucus membrane of the respiratory system.

Fine particles, usually referred to as PM10 or PM2.5, can be carried deep into the lungs where they can cause inflammation and a worsening of heart and lung diseases3. Long-term exposure to fine particles (PM2.5) can trigger atherosclerosis, adverse birth outcomes and childhood respiratory diseases, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO)4.

Carbon monoxide gas prevents the uptake of oxygen by the blood, which can lead to a significant reduction in the supply of oxygen to the heart, particularly in people suffering from heart disease. It slows reflexes, impairs thinking & causes drowsiness. Benzene is a known carcinogen which can cause leukaemia3.

The Government’s own Environmental Audit Committee estimates that outdoor air pollution causes 35,000-50,000 premature deaths per year in the UK5. Compare this with the 2,000 deaths per year caused by road traffic accidents and you begin to realise what a significant issue urban air pollution is, with exposure to air pollution causing people to die an average of 11.5 years early6.

The Aphekom project, which was the compiled work of 60 scientists working in 25 cities across 12 European countries between 2008 and 2011, showed that living near busy roads could be responsible for some 15-30% of all new cases of asthma in children, and of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary heart disease in adults 65 years of age and older7.

Finally comes the economic costs of this issue, and they’re significant. It’s been calculated that the societal cost of the health impacts of poor air quality in Birmingham alone is approximately £182 million a year8. So surely with all this in mind it’s time for somebody to do something?


The main cause of air pollution in most urban areas is of course fossil-fuelled transport. With Birmingham being the UK’s motor-city, which also has some of the lowest levels of cycling and walking in the country, it is unsurprising that we also have some of the highest levels of air pollution. BFoE have decided to tackle the problem of air pollution in our Let’s Get Moving campaign by encouraging people to use more active transport (which produces no emissions!) and by campaigning for investment that makes it easier for them to make that choice.

It might seem strange to advocate cycling and walking in a city which we say is so polluted. Surely you’re safer in your car than on a bike exposed to the air pollution of the traffic around you? However, this is not necessarily the case, as people sitting in cars in traffic will still breath in pollution. Furthermore, the walker or cyclist can more easily take back routes such as smaller roads or canals, where there will be less air pollution. One also needs to consider that the health benefits of walking and cycling are numerous, so numerous in fact, that they easily outweigh the negative health effects of air pollution.

A study of more than 10,000 people found that those who cycle at least 20 miles a week are half as likely to have heart problems as those who don’t cycle at all9. Cycling strengthens your immune system and can protect against certain kinds of cancers10. Added to this, the benefits of increased physical activity of changing from driving to cycling (3–14 months gained on life) are much greater than the potentially negative effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (0.8–40 days lost) and the increase in traffic accidents (5–9 days lost)11.

However, we know it will take more than convincing people of the health benefits of cycling and walking to get the shift to active transport that we need to see to make an impact on air pollution from traffic. That’s why, as well as raising awareness of air pollution and showing how people in Birmingham want to cycle, we will be making the case for the Council to set targets for journeys made by cycling and walking and, most importantly, the funds to make these a reality.

We feel that building more roads and runways is clearly not the answer to the UK and Birmingham’s air pollution problems, mainly because these are the cause of the problem in the first place. We want improvements in cycling infrastructure, so that it is easier for people to make that positive choice to cycle where it is too far to walk.

The Birmingham Mail have just launched their own cycle city campaign and so it’s a great to have them added to the cycling awareness raising12. So look out for Birmingham Friends of the Earth at upcoming events around the city, where you can find out more about air pollution and active transport, and Get On Yer Bike!


1 http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7ea982de-b244-11e2-a388-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2SEYp7mcn

2 Lead Pollution From Motor Vehicles 1974-1986: A select bibliography http://books.google.co.uk/books

3 http://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/

4 http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-13-72_en.htm

5 http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/latest/2012/07/17-Jul-12-Significant-reduction-in-pollution-achieved-by-creating-green-walls.aspx

6 http://www.healthyair.org.uk/why-healthy-air/causes-and-health-impacts

7 http://www.aphekom.org/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=5532fafa-921f-4ab1-9ed9-c0148f7da36a&groupId=10347

8 BCC and Birmingham Environmental Partnership, 23/03/12, ‘Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan 2012+’

9 http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/treatments/healthy_living/fitness/active_fitness.shtml#cycling

10 http://dsc.discovery.com/adventure/the-top-7-health-benefits-of-cycling.html

11 J.Johan de Hartog, H. Boogaard, H.Nijland and G.Hoek, August 2010, ‘Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks?’, Environmental Health Perspectives, 18(8), pp.1109-116, published online June 2010 available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2920084/

12 http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/all-about/cycling