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28/03/2021

Louise Brooke-Smith: Every breath you take...

If Covid-19 has taught us one thing, it's that polluted air in our living environments is killing us - and it;s in our pwer to change that, argues Louise Brooke-Smith

Remember when we entered the first Covid-19 lockdown and everyone noticed how clear the air was and how you could hear the birdsong? Then we had the second, and the weather was a bit rubbish so less people were outside and the novelty wore off.

Now the third lockdown is taking its toll, moving from the depths of winter and dark cold nights into a long-awaited spring. Not surprisingly, we are making the most of any sunny days to get outside again. Even with the Van-Tam and Whitty duo keeping us in line, we have become blasé in terms of sticking to the guidelines. There is more traffic on the roads so, sadly, it’s unlikely that the unexpected benefits of that first lockdown, air quality and birdsong, will be as impactful as a year ago.

But, along with renewed attention to mental health, exercise, wholesome food, and a better work-life balance, it seems that we are becoming more serious about the air we breathe.

And it’s about time. Technically, people living in a high proportion of conurbations near motorways shouldn’t venture out of their homes at all because the air quality is so bad. The implications of diesel and petrol fumes from our insatiable appetite for our own private tin boxes to move us from A to B, mean that people are dying. The cocktail of fumes – carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, benzene and soot from vehicle exhausts are all detrimental to the human body and this has now been recognised by the coroner presiding over the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah.

For the first time, road air quality has been cited as a major contributor to her demise, with the coroner declaring that the failure to reduce pollution levels to legal limits was a factor in her death in 2013. She was exposed to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter far in excess of WHO guidelines. Much of this came from traffic fumes. Lawyers argued there had been a violation of Article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998, concerning the right to life. Lots of politicians were contrite and HM Gov quickly cited its £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle pollution with the emerging environment bill.

“Perhaps we will see a new cycling or jogging community as the norm”

But Ella isn’t alone. There are thousands of asthma sufferers whose ability to simply walk to the shops is restricted because of pollution. Legislation has helped over the years and the pea-soupers prevalent from the 1930s to the 1950s were eventually stopped by statute responding to the basic fact that more cars meant more fumes and more coal fires meant more smoke. Particularly in winter, the perfect storm of smog debilitated thousands of urban dwellers. The phenomenon can still be experienced on a daily basis in parts of China and the US. Luckily for most of Europe, however, restrictions mean that the gloom of a pea soup is a rare occurrence.

With a global reawakening of all things ‘green and healthy’, our attitude to air quality is getting better. This is underpinned by buzzwords including ‘route to net-zero’, ‘carbon-neutral’ and ‘climate change champions’, in every development plan under way – complemented by the government’s goals for 2030 in terms of the end of diesel and petrol vehicle sales.

So as we say goodbye to diesel-guzzling urban tanks on the school run and ‘get into the green scene’, perhaps we will see a new cycling or jogging community as the norm in place of eight-lane highways. We might even reap the benefits of cleaner air and shriller birdsong. We, and the families of kids like Ella, can live in hope. 

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director

Illustration credit | Zara Picken

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