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by Liam Kirkaldy
28 April 2014
Invisible killer

Invisible killer

The arrival of Saharan dust in London earlier this month filled TV screens and news agendas across the UK, bringing the issue of air pollution with it. But in the debate over the air that we breathe, there was a much more low key, but far more important development. Figures extrapolated from a report by Public Health England indicate that air pollution has been linked to 2094 deaths every year in regions across Scotland, around ten times more people than obesity. Across the UK, the number is put at over 28,000.

Mic Starbuck, affected by asthma, says the problem is putting his life at risk. He said: “Breathing in even small amounts of polluted air can trigger an attack at any time, so I am forced to carry and use an inhaler wherever I go, and a nebuliser on longer journeys away from home.”

He continues: “Because of my recently developed hypersensitivity to air pollution, I have to take precautions which impact on my human rights. I have to avoid travelling into the centre of Glasgow during rush hour. I can no longer travel to the Parliament in Edinburgh to attend meetings because of air pollution, particularly at the railway stations. I have to avoid local pollution hotspots, busy junctions, taxi ranks, fast-food outlets and fumes from wood burning stoves and central heating systems.”

There were over 300 deaths associated with air pollution in Glasgow, and more than 200 in Edinburgh, but just six between Orkney and Shetland. The root cause of air pollution is generally recognised to be nitrogen dioxide produced by traffic.

The problem has become so severe that the European Commission has now launched legal action against the UK, after repeated failures to keep nitrogen dioxide levels under legal limits (including at one Scottish site), bringing with it the potential for huge fines if the UK cannot show that it is taking sufficient action to tackle the problem.

Air quality is measured by local authorities, but with European legal action looming, the Scottish Government has decided to review the Local Air Quality Management System, as well as promising a new strategy for reducing air pollution, expected in the autumn.

Emilia Hanna leads Friends of the Earth Scotland’s campaign to improve air quality. She said: “We want the Government to commit to a date for meeting Scottish air quality standards and we want it to include provisions for more funding towards active travel – more cycling and walking, and more funding for public transport. The strategy also needs to include a framework for low emissions zones, which are zones where vehicles have to meet high emissions standards to be able to come in, or pay a penalty.”

Low emissions zones are a fairly common solution, with different types already in place in London, Berlin and Copenhagen. In Berlin all cars have to have stickers on their windows indicating their emissions standards, which allow them access to certain areas – vehicles with the wrong sticker are issued with a fine. London uses cameras and number-plate recognition.

Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse told Holyrood: “Since 1990 nitrogen dioxide has gone down by 65 per cent, particulates are down 58 per cent, sulphur dioxide is down 79 per cent and we expect significant improvements by 2030, building on that performance. Some of that is down to industrialisation but also down to improvements in environmentally-friendly vehicles, so the glass is half full, we still have improvements to make but emissions are on a downward projectory. We are not talking about the smog we had in the 19th century – there has been a great deal of improvement.”

He continues: “We recognise calls to reduce demand for traffic but we need to encourage electric and hybrid vehicles because it is not impossible to envisage a scenario where we continue to have the same level of travel we have now but without the air pollution through electric vehicles. Hopefully there will be more active travel but you don’t necessarily need to stop people using their car if they have a more efficient vehicle.”

Claire Baker, Labour’s environment spokesperson, tabled a debate on the subject last month, which was the first time that the Scottish Parliament had discussed the issue since the SNP took power. Labour has called for greater monitoring of fine particles.

She said: “If you look at the hot spots in Scotland, they tend to be around the busy urban centres, and it won’t be that one size fits all – there will need to be tailored solutions – but the fact that the Scottish Government has cut the bus operators’ grant does not help move us forward.

She continues: “Part of the solution is in encouraging public transport, and less use of cars, and if that is to be effective it needs investment, and the bus sector receives less public investment than any other kind of public transport – it has led to fewer routes, higher fares, and makes people less likely to use public transport. Local authorities are in a position where they are being told to deliver, but their budgets are being cut, so it is a matter of pushing it up the political agenda so that people in government take it forward.”

During the debate, Green MSP Patrick Harvie pointed out that his first ever member’s debate had been on air pollution. That was around a decade ago, yet little has changed.

Part of the inaction probably stems from the fact that, although it is damaging to health, air pollution is not a direct killer. The stats released by Public Health England – which include Scottish mortality rates –  are based on “attributable deaths”, meaning the number of people whose lives were thought to have been reduced by at least 11 and a half years because of air quality.  This means that air pollution is a contributory factor in a far larger number of deaths, reducing the average Scottish person’s life by six months.

Another problem is that modern air pollution, unlike the smog of the Industrial Revolution, is invisible, even if it is thought to cost the UK NHS around £15bn per year. To Alison Johnstone, the issue would get more attention if it was treated as a health issue, rather than an environmental one.

She says: “If some unknown virus was causing this level of fatality every year the Government would do something about it now – no stone would be left unturned as they sought a cure, and there would be a real outcry. It is only when we have reports like this, that highlight the damage and the devastating impact on too many people’s lives, that we discuss it for a few weeks and then sadly, all too often it is back to business as usual and we don’t take the action that we need to.”

Like Friends of the Earth, the Greens are calling for greater investment in active travel, as a means of reducing traffic emissions, and getting people healthier at the same time.

“We need to take a serious look at how we plan our cities, we need to have a really good look at how we travel around them, because I think everyone, from businesses to pedestrians, would jump for joy if someone took some serious action. I mean, big multinational corporations don’t want their vans sitting in traffic jams going nowhere. It costs the economy a fortune and if we are seeing stats like this highlighting the impact then we really need to do something, and that means addressing the way we travel around our cities.”

She adds: “And we know what we need to do, the Government, working with local government, needs to look at demand reduction targets. We also need to invest far more in public transport. We have amazing buses in Edinburgh and we are really lucky but we need to make things as simple as possible and make public transport as attractive as possible. The trams have obviously been a very hotly debated subject but there is no doubt we need to invest in mass public transit transport that has the potential to be delivered using renewable energy. In Copenhagen, 40 per cent of people cycle to education and work – they actually have bike traffic jams. Across Scotland, around one per cent of people cycle.”

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