from Sunday Herald New Era magazine, 19 May 2013
Air pollution is one of the plagues of the modern age. The fumes that spew from vehicle exhausts, the tiny particles disgorged by diesel engines and the dust and grime of urban living make life much less pleasant - and much more dangerous.
Yet over the last ten years governments, councils and regulatory agencies seem to have made little difference in reducing the toxins we breath in. On the streets of towns and cities across the country, on bikes and in cars, trains, buses and taxis, we are exposed to concentrations of pollutants that could damage our health.
Today New Era publishes the first ever maps showing the pollution street-by-street in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Perth (see below). Based on government monitoring for the toxic gas, nitrogen dioxide, these reveal the pollution hotspots that those with heart or lung conditions, or who are generally worried about their health, might want to avoid.
We also publish a map showing the 13 places with air pollution problems – or “air quality management areas” - identified by local authorities, along with the names of the most polluted streets. As well as the big cities, these include towns such as Dunfermline, Falkirk, Paisley and Bearsden (see below).
There is also one rural site, Strath Vaich in the Highlands, where there is an official monitoring station. It suggests that concentrations of ground-level ozone pollution blown in from urban areas across Europe and the UK are high enough to stunt the growth of crops.
In addition, we’ve carried out our own ground-breaking monitoring that has revealed high levels of pollution from tiny particles at railway stations. By far the highest pollution was found on the Glasgow subway (see stories here and here).
Air pollution is a global problem, and was ranked as one of the world’s top-ten killers along with smoking, alcohol, poor diet and obesity in a major study last December. The study, published in the medical journal, The Lancet, put the overall death toll at four million people a year.
Most deaths are caused in poorer countries by the smoke from burning wood, coal or animal dung for cooking and heating. Experts says that many millions more are made sick because the pollution triggers heart and lung diseases, cancers and infections.
The Lancet study, which involved 486 experts from 50 countries and was led by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, also said that hundreds of thousands of people were dying every year in Europe. Fumes and particles from vehicles, factories and power plants are estimated to have caused 169,000 premature deaths in Eastern Europe and Russia, 166,000 deaths in Western Europe and 95,000 deaths in Central Europe in 2010.
In the UK, the most authoritative estimate has come from the UK government’s expert Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. In a report in 2010, it put the number of early deaths due to pollution from tiny particles at 29,000 a year.
This suggests that as many as 3,000 people in Scotland could be killed by air pollution, compared to 190 deaths a year from road accidents. Another study by the Institute of Occupational Medicine in 2003 concluded that air pollution killed more than 600 people a year in the central belt of Scotland.
The institute also said that air pollution was to blame for 1,292 admissions to hospital in Scotland because of breathing problems, 2,763 new cases of chronic bronchitis and over half a million "respiratory symptoms" amongst adults and children with asthma.
Evidence of the damage done by air pollution keeps mounting. Last week, a study by medical experts in Boston, US, suggested that pollution from busy roads could increase the risk of kidney problems.
The previous week, another study by scientists in Munich, Germany, found that children exposed to high levels of pollution were more likely to develop insulin resistance, a precursor of diabetes, by the age of ten. There are many studies linking air pollution to asthma, other breathing conditions and heart disease.
The European Commission has been leading the way in trying to cut the emissions that cause the pollution. But the UK government has been prevaricating, and trying to delay the enforcement of legal limits.
Earlier this month, UK ministers suffered a major blow when they lost a Supreme Court case in London. Five judges ruled that the government had failed to meet European air pollution standards, paving the way for the European Commission to take legal action, and impose a heavy fine on the UK.
The case concerned 16 cities which UK government plans show will suffer from illegal concentrations of nitrogen dioxide until 2020 or 2025. They include Glasgow, the worst polluted city in Scotland, as well as London, Manchester and Birmingham.
The record of government and councils on tackling air pollution has been fiercely criticised by environmentalists. Dr Richard Dixon, the director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, accused them of “wasting a decade” while condemning 30,000 people to an early grave (see comment below).
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), however, said councils were well aware of the problems. They had been working together for years, and had made important inputs to help the European Union (EU) draft its latest proposals.
“COSLA agrees that an effective air policy is crucial to improve the health of citizens and environmental conditions in the EU,” said a COSLA spokesman.
“However, local and regional authorities face several obstacles in their efforts to comply with the EU standards. This is mainly due to the fact that their ability to influence air quality is limited, due to background concentrations beyond the local scope of influence, limited means and tools and in many cases limited policy freedom.”
The Scottish government insisted that air quality had improved in recent decades due to tight industrial regulation and cleaner vehicles. “We meet domestic and EU air quality targets across most of Scotland, but we recognise that there are still localised examples of poorer air quality in some urban areas,” said a government spokeswoman.
“We’re working closely with the UK Government, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, local authorities and other partners to continue to drive down pollution levels. In Scotland we have already set an objective for particulate matter which is more than twice as stringent as those set by the UK government and by the EU.”
She stressed, however, that ministers were not complacent, and recognised that much of the pollution came from the transport sector. The Scottish Transport Emissions Partnership had been set up to help combat poor air quality, and would be holding a summit in July. “We are also continuing to invest in active travel to provide cleaner alternatives to using cars,” she said.
A decade wasted failing to tackle air pollution
Last year Glasgow and Dundee councils had to declare the whole of each city as pollution zones. Last month Edinburgh added new zones and extended the existing ones.
In almost all of Scotland’s urban areas air pollution, overwhelmingly from traffic, is breaching standards set to protect health – standards we have known about for 20 years and which we were supposed to meet nearly a decade ago in some cases.
A very credible estimate tells us that 29,000 people are killed off every year in the UK by just one pollutant - fine particles. So that’s about 2,500-3,000 a year in Scotland, or around 15 times the number killed in road crashes every year.
These are people with a breathing problem like asthma, or a heart condition, or those who are heading for a stroke. They lose months or years off their lives.
Air pollution affects a whole range of health issues, costing the economy billions in lost days at work. It holds back the development of children’s lungs, so young Glaswegians inspired by next year’s Commonwealth Games have little chance of becoming elite track athletes themselves, because of where they are growing up.
In the last decade Scotland’s urban councils have produced three or four action plans each, supposedly spelling out how they would bring pollution down so we meet the standards. In almost every case the polluted zones have expanded not contracted.
While councils and the government have wasted a decade failing to take air pollution seriously, another 30,000 people in Scotland have been condemned to an early death.
Of course there has been some action, including cleaner buses and re-routed traffic. But the bottom line is that we need not only cleaner vehicles, but also fewer vehicles if we are to meet these targets.
There has been some very promising pilot work on getting people out of cars, but the government’s commitment to massive road schemes, from the new Forth road bridge to the Aberdeen bypass, and from the A9 dualling to the Inverness bypass, is hardly sending the right signals about priorities.
The billions spent on these traffic-generating schemes could be spent much more effectively instead on reducing the need to travel, and on public transport, walking and cycling.
But we need stick as well as carrot, something notably missing from those action plans. Edinburgh’s proposed congestion charge would have gone a long way to solving the capital’s air pollution problems.
Those who opposed it need to come up with a set of measures that would be as effective. We need to look again at this, and reducing urban speed limits, workplace parking charges and car sharing lanes.
Dr Richard Dixon is the director of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
Pollution maps of three Scottish cities
Red shows the most polluted streets, orange the next most polluted, then yellow, then green, then blue. Anywhere that is red or dark orange is likely to be breaching air pollution safety limits. The maps are is based on monitoring for nitrogen dioxide by local authorities, analysed by Friends of the Earth Scotland. The data in each case is the most recent available (2012 for Edinburgh, 2010 for Glasgow and 2010 for Perth). Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown Copyright and database right 2013.
Scotland's pollution zones