• 802. The number of schools in London which exceed the legal air quality level in the UK.
  • 40,000. The number of people whose deaths are directly attributed to air pollution each year in the UK.
  • 5. The number of days into 2017 that one air pollution monitoring station in Brixton, London exceeded its annual limit.
mary poppins greenpeace gas mask statement

Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images

How do we make air pollution visible?

For any cause, illness or event that causes 40,000 deaths a year, there are campaigns, fundraisers, memorials and more to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. You can picture the sick, the needy and the helpless, but how can you picture something invisible? How can you picture air pollution?

This lack of visibility, pardon the pun, is part of the root problem of air pollution. If we are to be able to tackle something that we cannot see, where do we start? Greenpeace are one of several organisations struggling to visibly represent the crisis, though their recent Mary Poppins in a gas mask stunt was promising.

Major Headache for the Mayor

London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, who recently announced that he will be introducing a £10 daily charge for any car that is heavily polluting or outdated (around 7%), commented on the UK’s air pollution crisis, saying:

“It’s staggering that we live in a city where the air is so toxic that many of our children are growing up with lung problems. If we don’t make drastic changes now we won’t be protecting the health of our families in the future.”

“I will continue to do everything in my power to help protect the health of Londoners and clean our filthy air.”

Poisoning the Children

Of the 3,261 nurseries, primary schools, secondary schools and colleges in London, 802 were found to be within 150m of a site that breaches safe levels of Nitrogen Dioxide. So, where is all the air pollution coming from? Mainly, traffic.

As much as 80% of UK air pollution can be blamed directly on vehicles, with diesel cars the biggest culprit. Due to these, busy main roads are often the places with the lowest air quality.

As well as damaging the respiratory systems of London’s young citizens, air pollution poses a significant threat to fetal development, and can cause severe complications during pregnancies.

This diagram from the UCLA shows exactly at which stages of pregnancy the fetus is most vulnerable to air pollution related deformations.

This second diagram shows the effects on a child between birth and the age of 18. They state:

“Early childhood is also a critical period for the continued development and maturation of several biological systems such as the brain, lung, and immune system and air toxins can impair lung function and neurodevelopment, or exacerbate existing conditions, such as asthma.”

UCLA air pollution effects children teenagers respiratory

Solutions arising?

A recent report by ‘ResPublica’, an independent UK think-tank, produced nine progressive solutions for tackling the crisis. They include ideas such as subsidies on bicycles or cash incentives for exchanging old cars for newer, less harmful vehicles, investment in exhaust technology, incentives for taxi drivers to buy cleaner vehicles and real-time pollution alerts in strategic points like bus stops to make the issue more visible.

As well as these ideas, one Shell garage on the M25, London’s surrounding motorway, has begun selling hydrogen fuel. Shell have been quite vocal in their search for alternatives to fossil fuels and find ‘New Energies’. Their UK Chair, Sinead Lynch is even quoted as saying:

“There is no single silver bullet. All of us would like a simple solution, there isn’t one.”

Time to act now

With no simple solution offered, but a palate of different options that contribute to the bigger picture, on the table, we can only watch and see how the UK, and London, handle their latest crisis. Remember, as Winston Churchill once said, ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’.