The case for action

air pollution in china

Just when you think the case for something is overwhelming, a bit of evidence appears that makes the issue much more personal. Not personal in a ‘we are doing this for the common good’ way (though clearly that’s good), but more of ‘oh my word, this issue could really badly affect me!’ kind of way.

That seems to be happening a lot with air pollution recently. If the impacts of air pollution on our children, and at-risk groups like the elderly doesn’t persuade you, then what about if we told you that poor air can inhibit your own brain? Or lead to you developing Alzheimer’s at an earlier age?

Recent studies in Mexico City and Manchester have shown that magentite from air pollution can pass directly into the brain. This can result in early onset Alzhemier’s. Meanwhile, studies in China have also shown that air pollution levels can impact on how we perform during mental tests.

For the latter, the researchers even hypothesise that the total impact of air pollution on cognitive performance may be underestimated, as their analysis simply used a comparison of standardised test scores. In Canada, people who lived close to busy roads were found to be 7% more likely to develop cognitive issues such as Alzheimer’s in later life.

The evidence also suggests that those who are most disadvantaged in society are those who suffer the most from the effects of air pollution. This is partly because they live in areas that are most affected by air pollution. For example, 85% of schools in London with the worst levels of air pollution are in socially-deprived areas. Although, the evidence shows that, even if those who are better off have higher levels of exposure to air pollution, those who are comparatively less well off still suffer more from air pollution-related health issues. For instance, men with a lower educational attainment are more at risk from experiencing cognitive issues as a result of poor air quality.

Both action, and inaction, on air quality therefore becomes very personal. Much of the news in recent weeks has been on debating exactly what sort of actions to take. For instance, 17 city mayors in the UK have issued a call to UK Government to take bold action on tackling air pollution. Their demands include:

  • Passing a tougher clean air act that will give local authorities powers to regulate emissions;.
  • Set up a targeted vehicle renewal scheme to replace older, more polluting cars, buses and lorries, but in a way that will protect local businesses;
  • Provide funds to support the establishment of clean air zones and provide investment in cleaner buses, taxis and other forms of transport.

Much of these initiatives are in support of the work being undertaken by these cities, like tackling engine idling and routing of delivery vehicles.

The reason why this petition is important is because it is signalling that local leaders are becoming sick and tired of warm words and consultations. Whilst these words are being said, vehicles are still polluting our streets. They are not affecting just the communities these leaders serve, but the leaders themselves, right now. Whilst the effects of poor air quality is felt differently by different groups, air pollution does not discriminate its victims.

This means that air pollution is not just an issue affecting others. It affects everyone. I don’t know about you, but i plan to live an active and rewarding old age. Not one where years of breathing in exhaust fumes limits my ability to do the daily crossword puzzle, or means i struggle for breath when walking around town. Even though right now i feel as fit as a fiddle.

The time for words and soundbytes has come and gone. Unless we wish for this slow killer to gradually chip away at our lives for the next 30 years, the time for action is now.