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Guest blog: UK air pollution leads to 29,000 premature deaths a year - it's time to act

(30 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 03-May-13 10:40:43

On Wednesday, the UK's highest appeal court ruled that the government has breached European Union air quality laws by failing to reduce pollutants, and now faces EU fines of more than £300 million a year.

In today's guest blog, meteorologist and weather forecaster Clare Nasir says the government needs to act fast to save lives.

What do you think - do you worry about air quality, or does it never cross your mind? Did you know that so many lives are lost through air pollution? Tell us here on the thread, and if you blog on this, don't forget to post your URL.

"I became an ambassador for the Healthy Air Campaign when my daughter was a year old. She'd been born 8 weeks prematurely, and suffered from breathing issues. As a new mother, I was horrified by what I discovered about the effects of poor air quality -  a serious public health risk that the government has tried to sweep under the carpet, until yesterday's Supreme Court ruling that they have failed to protect our health from air pollution.

In the UK, air pollution, mostly produced from traffic fumes, causes three times more deaths than the likes of obesity or alcohol. The figure is a staggering 29,000 people a year. The levels of air pollution in many parts of the UK are illegal, and some large cities such as London, Glasgow Manchester and Birmingham have levels of pollution two or three times the legal limit set by the EU, based on guidance from the World Health Organisation.

Exposure to dirty air over a long period of time causes heart attacks, strokes and respiratory disease. Even the healthiest amongst us are at risk. Taking a stroll close to a busy road, shopping in town, cycling to work or spending time in a city park exposes you to all types of pollutants. Terrifyingly, it's an invisible threat that can take years to manifest.

Even worse there is strong evidence that children living near busy roads grow up with underdeveloped lungs - children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution, which makes the government's failure to act even more unacceptable.

This isn't new information, after all - back in 2010, a parliamentary report published all the finer details, which should have been a loud wake up call. But unlike other campaigns such the Department of Health's Stop Smoking, there hasn't been a big public awareness agenda to inform of this killer health issue.

After my daughter's first two stressful months in hospital, she was discharged. I started to relax into motherhood and felt elated to be a 'normal mum', walking in our local area with Sienna in her new pram. We'd often head out to the parks in North London -  but to get there I'd find myself walking along a part of the busy A1.  

Once I realised quite how vulnerable my daughter's brand new respiratory system was to all the nasties in the air, I started to search out alternative routes - but it's hard to avoid busy roads in London. I was shocked that, in all the advice offered to new parents, no-one had pointed out the dangers of air pollution.  At 18 months, Sienna was using an inhaler every day.

My Grandmother always said that she felt that prams and pushchairs today are scarily close to the ground - and all the awful stuff that is spewed from exhausts - compared to those in her day.

She could vividly remember bringing up two children in London before the Clean Air Act of 1956, their mouths and noses being caked with soot some mornings. But today's pollution, being invisible, is simply not considered by most parents.

We were lucky - we moved to Cheshire when Sienna was two and a half, and now live on the outskirts of a town.  I've really noticed the effect on her health - the inhaler comes out far less often, and it's no longer something that weighs on my mind as I go out of the door.

But I'm very aware that we can't all move out of the cities, and that's why I'm thrilled at yesterday's Supreme Court declaration that those in power had indeed failed in their duty to protect the British people from the harmful effects of air pollution.

But to ensure that the government acts and acts fast, we need people to speak out to demand a cleaner environment for our families. I want my child to step out of the house tomorrow and be able to breathe easy, whether she is in the countryside or the centre of Manchester.

We want parents to be heard by government, demanding cleaner air for our families. Sign up to the Healthy Air Campaign, or get in touch to find out what you can do to get involved."

ChildrensStoriesNet Mon 06-May-13 16:10:36

The biggest contribution to this pollution problem is excessive centralisation and congestion, both dictating more and longer travel (eg: think of London and other congested cities)

Our obsession with distance work travel and instant delivery of purchases (instead of planning ahead) is also a major driver of the problem (more vehicle miles).

There's a link between the need for excessive travel and the decline in the internal economy (the move away from localisation eg: out of town shopping - supermarkets)

Promoting localisation makes the electric option more practical sooner (shorter distances), it also helps boost traditional high streets which are struggling and thus helps the internal economy recover.

ChildrensStoriesNet I couldn't agree more. We are told we should be willing to work as far away from home as necessary, but I think there should be tax penalties (to the companies at least) for not employing local people. Also really serious incentives for setting up business in low employment areas. The government might have to kick start things by building in rural areas.

fresh Mon 06-May-13 22:23:45

CHildrenstoriesnet I agree. It's a bit chicken and egg - if you make it easier for people to shop/work locally then they're less likely to get in their cars, but someone needs to take the risk in setting up a local company first. It's tricky though - how do we as a community encourage companies to choose our location? We're working on neighbourhood planning to try to promote more local working and shopping but it's very market-led. Companies who stay local have to take a long-term view and that's very hard in today's climate.

I live in London and have two young children. My 3 year old has had asthma type symptoms for about a year and it has made me become much more interested in the air quality here. I'm pretty angry about how the government are behaving on this issue. They've spent our taxes fighting in court for the right to side-step their responsibilities on air pollution and health protection, and will now be spending more of tax payers money paying fines that they could have avoided.

Policy makers don't seem to connect their behaviour with people's lives - the government tried to suggest 2025 as a realistic date to achieve improvements in air quality in London that they should have met several years ago - in 'real-life' terms my children, and other children of a similar age in London, would have spent their whole childhood exposed to unacceptable levels of pollution. Thanks to Client Earth and Healthy Air UK for fighting for improvements on our air might get cleaned up sooner.

I've blogged to raise awareness of this issue a few times. Here's my latest: www.bikelightsinthefruitbowl.co.uk/2013/03/sweet-16and-living-with-the-legacy-of-government-inaction-on-air-pollution.html

I'm looking forward to a workshop with Healthy Air UK later this month and finding out more about what I can do locally to get more people fired up.

ChildrensStoriesNet Thu 09-May-13 15:25:35

Re: FRESH - Mon 06-May-13 22:23:45

A few options of many...

Promoting localisation...

Authority Planning departments should have a duty to give priority to locally owned and run businesses, especially small ones (Sustainable Development). National companies should only be permitted if there is no local alternative found.

HMRC Automatically Tax Employers for non local employees (PAYE records) unless working locally from home, to promote local employment and reduce carbon emissions and pollution.

Employers with over 10 employees should have to pay a higher minimum wage (eg: +20%), to give small businesses and local innovation a chance to succeed and limit the destructive power of national centralised companies (eg: chains) on local economies.

It should be compulsory to share company profits 40% with staff (as well as share holders), maximum executive pay should be no more than 8x the lowest full time pay rate within the organisation, both to enforce a fairer work place, a more responsible attitude to the economy and share of wealth generation.

Put VAT on foods, then Disallow VAT Reclaim for Food costs (inc. delivery) originating over a given distance away (eg: over 50 miles England and Wales, 75 miles Scotland), to help local producers develop, boost local agriculture and reduce carbon emissions and pollution.

The above are aimed at helping smaller towns, London (and other big cities) are a special case that require their own set of additional measures, in London's case we already have the blunt instrument congestion charge.

We've already seen the profit motivated Social Cleansing Proposals for parts of London and the Cotswolds, quite simply mad. It's not a solution to bus the lower paid in every day 25 to 50 miles, at great cost to do the required jobs. These dumb proposals would have never arisen if we'd had a more balanced economy (less of a pay gap top to bottom).

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