Air Pollution: A Public Health Crisis Hiding in Plain Sight

On 16th December 2020, coroner Philip Barlow recognised that the 2013 death of severely asthmatic nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah was “contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution” in her hometown of Lewisham, London – a landmark ruling thought to be the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Kissi-Debrah lived near the South Circular Road, one of London’s worst polluted, where levels of nitrogen dioxide (emitted by car engines) exceeded both European Union and World Health Organisation thresholds. In the years before her death, Kissi-Debrah had been hospitalised 27 times after enduring repeated seizures, her condition worsened by high exposure to toxic emissions. This story provides an opportunity to investigate the ever-growing issue of air pollution and its impact on public health, particularly in a world already preoccupied with Covid-19.

Air pollution is a significant challenge across the globe – World Health Organisation (WHO) data suggests that ambient air pollution contributes to 4.2 million deaths annually, with up 9 in 10 people worldwide breathing air that does not meet its guidelines. Poor air quality, often in the form of high levels of nitrogen dioxide and airborne particulate matter (PM2.5), can reduce lung capacity, risk heart disease, worsen asthma and cause diseases such as emphysema.

Cities in industrialising countries such as Beijing, Dhaka and New Delhi are characterised by thick, hazardous smog, making outdoor mask-wearing ubiquitous long before the Coronavirus pandemic. According to IQ Air’s 2019 World Air Quality Report, South Asia is home to 6 of the 10 worst countries for air quality in terms of average particulate matter; with Bangladesh the world’s most polluted.

Vehicles drive through smog near India Gate in...

Pictured: Thick smog obscuring the view of the India Gate war memorial in New Delhi. Photo credit: Reuters

However, air pollution is hardly a crisis confined to the poorest countries. Public Health England estimated in 2018 that man-made air pollution was a factor in 28,000 to 36,000 deaths in the United Kingdom annually. Perhaps the most famous British case of air pollution is the Great Smog of London in December 1952, caused by an anticyclone (which pushes air downwards) trapping coal particles from homes and waste gases from factories in the streets of the capital instead of allowing it to rise into the atmosphere. The incident lasted four days and contemporary government estimates stated it caused 4,000 deaths (although modern guesses are far higher) – not to mention reports of cattle being asphyxiated and the victims’ long-term breathing difficulties. In response to the crisis, the UK’s first Clean Air Act was passed in 1956, which included provisions surrounding the control of dark smoke emissions and the banning (in some areas) of fuels that produced smoke.

IQ Air reports that the most polluted areas in the UK are Greater London, in terms of nitrogen dioxide (predominantly from car emissions); and Chatham, Kent in terms of average particulate matter concentration. Air quality in the UK frequently breaches guidelines set by the EU and WHO, and in 2018, the UK Government was referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels in breach of EU regulations quickly enough.

Whilst Leeds does not rank among the worst in the UK, Friends of the Earth claimed in 2019 that the Neville Street tunnel was the most polluted outside of London, with a nitrogen dioxide level more than double the safe limit of 40ug/m3. Despite this, however, Leeds City Council claims that Leeds’ air is “cleaner than ever” overall and cancelled a plan to introduce a Clean Air Zone in October 2020 after claiming that it was “no longer required.”

Clean Air Charging Zone

Pictured: The proposed location for the cancelled Leeds Clean Air Zone. Photo credit: BBC News

According to IQ Air, transport emissions are the largest source of air pollution in most major British cities, including Leeds city centre. In recognition of this on a national level, the UK Government announced in November 2020 that sales of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned in 2030 to encourage greater take-up of less polluting electric vehicles. In addition, Leeds City Council have taken a series of localised measures including the introduction of an electric vehicle free trial scheme, investment in a new fleet of electric buses for the Leeds area and installing EV charging points. Other significant causes of air pollution in Leeds include construction, open fires and central heating boilers.

Furthermore, international stay-at-home orders and the banning of all but essential travel during the Coronavirus pandemic caused a dramatic decrease in air pollution. Notably, citizens of Jalandhar, India were able to see the Himalayas from their windows for the first time in decades after the reduction of road traffic led to the dissipation of thick smog. Nevertheless, this is far from a permanent solution and emissions caused by travel will surely rise again once lockdown ends.

Header image: A policeman wearing a mask during the 1952 Great Smog of London. Photo credit: Britannica