air pollution

London hit by dangerous pollution levels

Smog levels cloud London last week, seen from Stoke Newington, North London. Photo credit: David Holt via Flickr.
By Anders Lorenzen

Nearly a month ago much of western Europe was hit by dangerous air pollution levels including France and the UK. The French reacted promptly by making public transport free as well as banning cars with even numbers followed by uneven numbers the following day. However, it was only necessary for those measures to be in place for one day as they contributed to the levels coming back to normal in record time. The UK capital London, the European city with the highest air pollution levels and who face an EU fine for failing to comply with air quality standards, did nothing.

Nothing wrong with London’s air
Last week air pollution again rose to dangerous levels in London (and other UK cities) and the Mayor Boris Johnson has responded by doing nothing. In fact the controversial Mayor caused outrage when he said that he was on his bike in the morning and he did not feel anything wrong with the London air. Earlier the UK Prime Minister David Cameron had stated that air pollution was a natural phenomenon.

Several factors contributed to the high air pollution levels: release of the gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which is emitted from traffic. Another factor that contributed to the severity of the air pollution and which might be the case that prompted Mr. Cameron to label it is as natural phenomenon is tiny sand corns being blown over from the Sahara desert, apparently those sand corns make it extra lethal. Those winds have also brought extra pollution over from mainstream Europe mixing with the UK cities already high air pollution levels.

Air pollution the invisible killer
We measure air pollution from two different particles, PM2.5 is very fine particles and PM10 are larger objects. PM10 is being emitted from transport, with especially high levels from diesel emissions. While PM2.5 is mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal. PM10 reached the level of 100 last week, which is well above the World Health Organisation (WHO) safe level. WHO says that air pollution is the world’s single biggest killer, worldwide 7 million yearly deaths can be attributed to air pollution, while in the UK it kills 29,000 each year.

While the average person will feel symptoms like sore throat, cough and itchy eyes, it can be lethal to asthma sufferers as it might provoke attacks including for people with heart disease. The WHO are now saying that it can also be linked to the cause of lung cancer. Of the two different particles, PM2.5 is set to be the most dangerous as particles are so tiny that they can penetrate the deepest places in our body such as our lungs.

London Mayor has done little to tackle air pollution

Since Mr. Johnson came into office he has done very little to tackle air pollution issues. He cancelled part of the London Congestion Charge which was brought in by his predecessor Ken Livingstone. The scheme which was a combined effort to tackle air pollution and ease congestion was cancelled in west London, he also ensured that any vehicle depending how big the engine was, would pay the same fee, thereby failing to tackle the worst offenders. The Mayor has failed to make it attractive to cycle or walk into work (cycle accidents in London are currently at an all time high). Only very few London boroughs currently have in place the 20 miles per hour (mph) speed limit restrictions which campaigners said would help combat NO2 emissions. Finally, many blame the Mayor for cleaner transport modes, such as the electric car, having not  managed to really take off in London. But perhaps the biggest stumbling block is the UK government who is slashing fuel duty, making sure driving a car is a sound economical option, while failing to advise car users to use their car less, clean air campaigners say.

Sub edited by Charlotte Paton

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