Look at a map of south London and you’ll see its many ‘green lungs’: parks, playing fields, allotments, woods and cemeteries.
From the street, you can spot dozens of smaller pockets of greenery: front and back gardens, hedges, grassy verges and trees. They all provide shelter for wildlife, and space to play, relax and rest the eyes.
What you can’t see from an ordinary map – or even by walking the streets – is the pollution in the air. London records the worst levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in Europe as well as dangerous concentrations of tiny particles, smaller than the diameter of a human hair, known as PM 10s and PM2.5s.
These invisible gases and particles irritate and lodge in the lungs, exacerbating heart disease and asthma and cutting years off the average life expectancy. After smoking, air pollution is now the leading cause of early death.
Where do these invisible killers come from? Most of the harmful emissions come from vehicles – about 80% of the total. Diesel-fuelled taxis, buses and trucks are the worst polluters. Dangerous levels can quickly build up where traffic stands idling in queues and on still, dry days. Think back to the hazy days of summer: there was a serious smog episode just two days before the opening ceremony of the London Olympics,
Children, the elderly and people with existing respiratory illness suffer most from air pollution, but we’re all affected. A study commissioned by the Mayor of London estimated that 4,267 Londoners died prematurely in 2008 as a result of long-term exposure to polluted air – mostly through heart attacks and strokes.
Young people are particularly vulnerable because their lungs are still developing. It’s estimated that traffic pollution may be responsible for 15-30% of all new cases of asthma in children. Yet there are 48 schools in Southwark within 150 metres of roads that carry over 10,000 vehicles a day.
So as well as looking at school facilities, values and exam results, should parents be checking out the air quality in the playground? There are currently no on-street monitoring stations in the Dulwich area – the nearest ones are in Catford, Wandsworth or the Old Kent Road – so local levels are not known, though the heavy traffic on our streets indicates a problem. Southwark Council has recently agreed to monitor air pollution levels in 6 schools across the borough. It’s a welcome measure, but it’s only the start.
It may seem hard to tackle an invisible killer like air pollution but Londoners have succeeded in doing so in the past. Some readers will remember the London smogs of sixty years ago: thick yellowish-brown clouds with a distinctive smell and taste, they were impossible to miss. The ‘Great Smog’ of December 1952 caused more than 4,000 deaths in a few days. Anger at those untimely deaths put huge pressure on politicians, and led to the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 which did away with coal smog.
Today, a similar number of Londoners are dying prematurely each year. The pollution we’re breathing in is less visible but just as deadly as the Great Smog. It’s time to clean up our city air for the sake of all our lungs.
What can you do?
- Raise awareness. If you or members of your family suffer from asthma, consider signing up for alerts from www.airtext.info. On ‘bad air days’, you might choose a different route to reduce your exposure. The online journey planner http://walkit.com can help find a less polluted walking route.
- Reduce your own contribution to emissions. If you have school-age children, talk to other parents about what would make walking or cycling to school possible. Cycle training? Cycle sheds? A walking bus? All schools should have a travel plan which enables greener options and there is also help available from the council.
- Make a fuss about air quality. Do the drivers of school coaches and delivery vans turn off their engines or leave them idling? Are local buses running on diesel? Ask TfL and members of the London Assembly when your bus route will be cleaned up. Most importantly, ask local councillors and MPs why London air pollution is at illegal levels and what they will do to reduce it.
Eleanor Margolies is the author of Green Camberwell: a map of parks, history and art