The hazy shade of spring

Dust particles and pollution from cars hangs over London
Dust particles and pollution from cars hangs over London
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Health warnings have been issued as air pollution levels rise across England. But how bad is the situation and what are the challenges we face? Chris Bond reports.

MUCH of this week we’ve woken up to dank and murky mornings. No great surprise there you might think, this is Yorkshire after all.

But while fog in April isn’t uncommon, the gloomy skies that have enveloped large swathes of the country these past few days have led to spikes in air pollution, with dust coming from as far away as the Sahara.

The Government has already issued health warnings as high levels of pollution recorded on Tuesday continued to spread yesterday. London, the Midlands and East Anglia were the worst hit areas while parts of Yorkshire – particularly Leeds and Sheffield – were also affected.

Elderly people and those with heart or lung disease were urged to avoid strenuous exercise, while people with asthma were told to keep their inhalers handy as they could be more prone to more attacks in the next day or two. The advice came after a warning that some parts of the country were experiencing high levels of pollution. Defra ranks air pollution from one to 10 – with one meaning there is a “low” risk and 10 warning of “very high” levels – and in Norfolk and the East Midlands it reached level 10.

These days we’ve become used to seeing pictures on the news of places like Beijing and Delhi cloaked in a suffocating smog and people walking around wearing white masks, but we perhaps don’t think about air pollution being a problem in the UK.

However, the figures tell a different story. Campaigners say that research shows air pollution causes around 29,000 early deaths in the UK every year, while countless numbers of days are lost through illnesses like asthma. In York, regarded as one of the country’s air pollution blackspots, it’s estimated that between 94 and 163 people die prematurely each year because of poor air quality, prompting senior politicians to dub pollution as the city’s “invisible killer”.

Globally, the statistics are even more striking. According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution claimed around seven million lives in 2012 and is the single biggest environmental health risk.

Dr Steve Arnold, associate professor of atmospheric composition at the University of Leeds, has been monitoring pollution levels in Yorkshire and says they are cause for concern.

“The numbers I was seeing in Leeds and Sheffield were double the EU’s safe limit for small particles in the atmosphere. We breathe these in and they can do damage to lungs and respiratory systems, so there’s a danger to people with heart conditions and lung disease.”

The EU’s safe limit for pollution levels is 50 micrograms per cubic metre of air, but Dr Arnold says these were well exceeded in parts of Yorkshire this week. “In Leeds it reached about 90 and in Sheffield it got as high as 105, which is more than double the safe limit.”

Only last month the French Government imposed traffic restrictions in Paris after air pollution exceeded safe levels for five days running in the capital and surrounding areas. “Levels in Paris peaked at 160, but the daily average is not too dissimilar from what we’ve been seeing in Sheffield,” says Dr Arnold.

He says there are a number of reasons for the sharp rise in pollution levels. “Emissions from motor vehicles is the main cause and there’s air pollution blown in from the near continent and there’s also reports of dust particles coming from the Sahara. It’s difficult to say what impact this has had but anecdotally there’s stories of people in Leeds finding dust on their cars this week, so it seems some of it could be coming from this source.”

It may have taken a wind from the Sahara to blow it into the headlines, but it’s not the first time we’ve had to contend with high levels of air pollution. “We’ve already seen two or three events this year although this week’s has been the worst. I looked back at the levels recorded for Leeds over the last three or four years and there were some similar events around this time of year.”

It’s also become a political issue, with the EU launching legal proceedings against the UK for failing to reduce “excessive” levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution – caused mostly by traffic – after 15 years of warnings. “The EU sets legal pollution limits and a number of regions in the UK have breached these limits, although you are legally allowed to breach them a set number of times per year in a given location,” Dr Arnold explains.

Britain has been criticised for not tackling the problem more effectively, but one of the problems we face is that with pollution blown in from Europe and even as far away as North Africa the situation is at least partly out of our control.

Even so, Dr Arnold believes we could be doing more to curb air pollution. “By limiting our local emissions from road traffic for example, we would help reduce the severity of these events when they occur, even if they are largely controlled by pollution coming from elsewhere.”

We have, of course, suffered from air pollution in the past. But while the dreadful smogs that smothered London during the early 1950s were caused by coal burning and smoke, the modern “smogs” are characterised by fine particles and have been driven, if you’ll pardon the pun, by the huge increase in cars around the world.

So is the situation likely to get worse? “There is some evidence that with a warming climate, light wind patterns that trap air pollution over the UK could become more common.” In which case we might start being grateful for having a cooler climate. “Generally speaking in Yorkshire and the north we aren’t too bad compared to London and the South East. We have fewer concentrated areas of emissions and our weather is worse, it tends to be windier which disperses the pollution.”

Our towns and cities may be a long way off the kind of pollution that plagues some cities in Asia, but it’s still a serious concern. Friends of the Earth regional campaigner Simon Bowens believes more should be done. “We want to see the introduction of a national network of low emission zones that get HGVs, which are a big polluter, out of our city centres. If you look around Europe you see more being done to encourage people to use sustainable and public transport and we need the same level of ambition in the UK.”

Dr Robert Bryant, based at the geography department at Sheffield University, says while we need to be doing more to tackle pollution locally, we also need to look at the bigger picture. “What we’re seeing at the moment is pollution from Europe and dust from Africa and people don’t realise how far this travels.

“Dust pollution will increase as a result of climate change and unsustainable agriculture in places like Africa, so we really need to start thinking more globally about air pollution and the impact that it has.”