The invisible killer on our streets

By Cath Prisk

| 18 March 2019

We know, from our own research, that parents are most likely to cite fears around traffic as the reason they prevent children from going outside. But it's not just accidents we should be concerned about - we need to do more to combat air pollution: the invisible killer on our streets.

If we want children to play out we need to tackle air pollution. Is there anyone reading this who is unaware of the effects of air pollution? The ‘pea-soupers' of London are part of the city's cultural DNA, but just because you can see your way through the smog, it doesn't mean the problem has gone away.

It's worth taking a moment to consider these statistics:

  • A 2015 study by Kings College estimated that in London, nearly 10,000 people a year die as a result of air pollution.
  • We are significantly more affected by pollution than people in other advanced economies, including the US, Germany and France.
  • Professor David King, an adviser to the British Lung Foundation has recommended that children walk or cycle to school because air pollution is more harmful to children inside cars than outside.

Early this year, there was a significant development as a new inquest was granted into the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, to establish whether the cause of death can be directly attributed to air pollution. Ella, who suffered from severe asthma, lived in close proximity to the South Circular Road in a locality where pollution levels frequently breached EU legal limits. In the three years before she died, she was frequently hospitalized after suffering major seizures at times when there was a spike in the levels of Nitrogen Dioxide in the area.

So far, experts have been wary of drawing a direct correlation between air pollution and mortality, although all the research available shows that air pollution shortens our lives by a number of years, and makes respiratory conditions more common in the population.

Because of our dependency on car culture, it's a problem that has taken on an air of intractability. For many people, breathing in toxic fumes is simply viewed as the price you're obliged to pay for living in a major city. It will take a huge effort to engender a shift in attitude. But this year, of all years, there is momentum for change. Why?

  • In 2019, London becomes a National Park City
  • The introduction of the low emission zone in April, will introduce a higher tariff on the most polluting vehicles entering the congestion charge area.
  • Play Streets and School Streets, two laudable initiatives in the capital, are gaining traction. Westgate Street, where our shop is located, has recently become a school street - meaning it is open only to pedestrians, buses and bikes for 45 minutes at either end of the school day.

Over the coming months we'll be highlighting events and discussions across the capital and we're planning our own anti-pollution event in July as part of the National Park City Festival. In the meantime, some ideas for you include:

  • Join the event '200 Play Streets & 100 Healthy School Streets across London' on 22 March.
  • Read a myth-busting article to get an overview of the different methods of statistical analysis.
  • Keep up-to-date on air quality in London
  • Find out what the London Assembly is doing to help reduce pollution.
  • And just tell everyone you know to turn their cars off! If we just stopped idling engines it would help so much. If you get on a bike its even better!

Cath Prisk is chief executive of Outdoor People. This blog was first published on the Outdoor People website

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