Christopher Snowdon

Do we need to worry about air quality in Britain?

Is polluted air still a problem in Britain? When it comes to smog and pollution, most of us think about rapidly-industrialising city likes Shanghai and Delhi rather than London. Yet the research tells a different story: the Royal College of Physicians estimates that 40,000 deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution, and that the wider health problems resulting from toxic air – which include asthma, cancer, and stroke and heart disease – could cost the UK economy more than £20 billion every year. They’re staggering numbers – so why don’t we hear more about the problem?

On 17 June 2019, The Spectator gathered a group of politicians, academics and other experts together for a lunch to discuss this issue and establish what actions need to be taken. A few days earlier, the Evening Standard had reported an ‘utterly horrifying’ rise in the ‘death risk from London toxic air’. Public Health England also says the numbers are rising. The broadcaster Alastair Stewart, who chaired the lunch, kicked off proceedings by asking, how reliable are these statistics? Is the problem really getting worse? How bad is it and how worried should we really be?

The nature of air pollution has changed and there is still much we don’t know. Smokestacks and belching factories have made way for diesel exhaust fumes and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Despite a ban on coal-burning in big cities, the problem of air pollution is worsening in many local areas, particularly outside schools, mainly because of motor vehicles. Professor Jonathan Grigg (Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine at Queen Mary & Member of the UK Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution) said that the evidence of harm done by vehicle pollution has only become overwhelming quite recently. Air pollution particles have got smaller. This makes them less visible but no less dangerous.

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