We all have a role to play in reducing air pollution, and now is the time to act

Roddy Crockett works at Sustrans, the charity making it easier for people to walk and cycle
Roddy Crockett works at Sustrans, the charity making it easier for people to walk and cycle

Air pollution and the quality of the air we breathe is something that finally seems to be entering the public consciousness in 2019.

Despite being something we generally can’t see, we really are starting to notice it, and it’s about time too. Our bodies and minds are being affected and it’s especially dangerous for vulnerable people, like those with asthma or the very young.

As well as unanimously backing a climate emergency petition in 2019, in recent years Brighton and Hove City Council has declared two Air Quality Management Areas, where levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) have been above the legal limit. The council has identified a number of measures to reduce air pollution in these areas through their Air Quality Action Plan. But it’s not just up to our governing bodies; as citizens of Brighton and Hove, we must all take responsibility and act to improve the quality of the air we breathe. If we don’t, we are at serious risk of harming not only the planet, but our own health and that of our children.

What is air pollution?

When we talk about air pollution we’re often talking about two main things: particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (particularly nitrogen dioxide or NO2).

Particulate matter can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals, most of which are caused by pollutants emitted from the burning of fossil fuels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest mobile source is from road transport – from road dust, tyres and brakes and the burning of fuel. Burning fossil fuels also produces the gas NO2.

Research shows exposure to NO2 causes inflammation of the airways and long-term exposure can decrease lung function and increase the risk of respiratory conditions. Both short- and long-term exposure to particulate matter can cause asthma, lung cancer, respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, birth defects, low birth weight, and premature death. That’s a pretty unpleasant list of effects, so it’s no wonder the World Health Organisation lists Air Pollution (and climate change) as one of the top ten threats to global health in 2019.

But as individuals, we are not powerless. In fact, we have a huge amount of power to take simple actions to improve local air quality and reduce our own exposure to this (mostly) invisible killer.

Reducing car travel to reduce air pollution

Did you know that over 40% of car commutes in the UK are less than two and a half miles long? Or that modern vehicles can emit twice as much pollution in the first five minutes of any journey? Reducing car travel, and particularly short journeys like these, is the obvious place to start in our mission for cleaner air.

Some people worry that being on foot or bike will increase their exposure to air pollutants, but research suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. A 2018 study found that for a short town centre commute, cyclists had the quickest journeys and so the lowest levels of exposure, with people in cars being exposed to almost twice as much air pollution. Walking away from main roads and lobbying the council and government to make walking safer and easier are other steps that you can take.

Getting active on the school run to clean our kids' air

Some studies have shown that children are exposed to twice as much pollution as adults -quite a scary stat. Levels of air pollution are highest during the peak morning rush hour, when 1 in 5 cars on the road is doing the school run. This means that changing the way we do the school run could have a significant impact on our children’s health.

The good news is that cycling, scooting and walking to school are great fun. In fact, a Sustrans survey showed that nearly half of children want to cycle to school. And studies have shown that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks, including exposure to air pollution.

So, why not encourage your child’s school to promote walking and cycling, or consider a school street closure, like the one held at St Luke’s Primary School in March as part of Sustrans’ School Streets initiative, to remove vehicles from the road outside the school at school run time on a temporary or permanent basis?

40,000 early deaths each year

It is estimated that in the UK 40,000 early deaths are attributable to poor air quality each year. That’s a huge number. And to bring that number down the government and we, as individuals, must take responsibility and recognise that the way we travel impacts on our health. Vitally we must take action.

Roddy Crockett works at Sustrans, the charity making it easier for people to walk and cycle. They connect people and places, create liveable neighbourhoods, transform the school run and deliver a happier, healthier commute. Join them on their journey. www.sustrans.org.uk
Sustrans has been selected as one of the Mayor’s charities this year.