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Another 30,000 nails in the coffin of the ‘greenest government ever’

Hammer and nail

What public health risk killed nearly 30,000 persons in the UK last year? Second only to smoking. We assume this sort of thing occurs in developing countries with over-rapid growth like China or in car-choked Los Angeles in California, but not in the UK. Think again.

The pea-souper smog in London in December 1952 killed over 4,000 residents. It is now regarded as one of the worst public health disasters in the UK over the last century. Last year, 60 years later, a far bigger disaster has erupted – nearly 30,000 people died in the UK from filthy air – waves of sooty particles known as PM2.5s which are so minuscule that they can penetrate deep into the lungs and cross into the bloodstream. They then cause heart and lung disease and cancer, and aggravate asthma. When PM2.5 levels are raised, the air goes hazy and visibility is sharply reduced. They are emitted largely by diesel engines. So why is this whole issue being ignored? Why hasn’t a commitment been given to phase out diesel engines?

There’s not even the excuse for the Tories that London and the south-east are OK and it’s only the rest of the country that’s afflicted, so we can ignore the problem. Paradoxically on the occasion the reverse is true. London is hit hardest with the south-east not far behind, but the regions of northern England which were formerly choked by air pollution from coal-mining, shipbuilding and heavy industry now have the cleanest air – admittedly for the wrong reason that they’re so denuded of manufacturing and jobs. Nor is it the case that the UK has hitherto had a clean bill of health over air pollution so that this was an unexpected shock. We have for a long time been in the crosshairs of the EU Commission over another air pollutant, NO2. This combines with particles and other chemicals in the air which further aggravates health risks. The UK has exceeded ceiling levels for this pollutant so many times in recent years that it is now being taken to court by the EU.

This should prove quite a test case for the government. It has already cut back £100m spending on flood defence which was partly responsible for the Somerset Levels flooding, and it would happily do nothing about air pollution. But the borough with the most polluted air in the country is Kensington and Chelsea, one of the UK’s wealthiest areas. It will be interesting to see whether the lobbying from this ultra-rich clique elicits a response. I bet it will, but you won’t hear about it because it will be kept very quiet.

Image credit: designsstock / 123RF Stock Photo

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