When we think of the major threats to health, we probably think of heart disease and cancer. And we’d be right. But coming in strong at number four on the list is… air pollution. A recent report from Public Health England (PHE) claimed that up to 36,000 deaths a year are partly due to people being exposed to long term air pollution.
If you’re sitting back happily, thinking that you’re ok because you don’t live in London, you might want to check out this list. It’s true that London’s air quality is now on a par with Delhi and Beijing: the capital has had nine high alerts for air pollution since 2016. But around 40 sites across the UK have air pollution levels that exceed World Health Organization recommendations.
And it’s not just the UK. The World Health Organization attributes around 7 million deaths a year worldwide to air pollution. It is said to cause heart disease, strokes, lung cancer and respiratory diseases. It makes asthma worse, particularly for children. Since air pollution travels, and because pollutants can mix to make new pollutants, the problem cannot simply be localised.
So what are we doing about it?
There are four main areas that contribute to air pollution: roads, homes, farming and industry. It’s no surprise that traffic is a major pollutant, but it’s also a difficult issue to tackle. Cutting vehicle emissions depends on a combination of changes to both vehicle types and driver behaviour. For example, around a dozen UK cities already have low emission zones, which have forced buses and vans to be greener. Public Health England recommends that there should be ‘no idling’ zones at schools, as a way to protect children’s health.
In the longer term, the government’s Road to Zero sets out a plan for getting to the point where most of the UK’s cars and vans are low emissions:
– By 2030, at least 50% of new car and van sales are expected to be ultra-low emissions
– By 2040, sales of new diesel and petrol cars will stop; the majority of new cars and vans should be zero emissions
– By 2050, all vehicles should be zero emissions
Of course, EVs are still comparatively expensive. Currently there are grants available towards the cost of buying an EV. They’ll carry on until 2020, and it’s highly likely that there’ll be some form of incentive even after that. And around £400 million is being made available to improve the nationwide charging infrastructure. That’s not just so that petrol stations also handle EVs. Imagine being able to plug your car into a street light to charge? That’s one of the suggestions for areas with heavy on-street parking.
The roads of the future could be quieter, greener and a lot less toxic.
1 ‘Air pollution: cars should be banned near schools says public health chief’. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47520848