Air Pollution & Public Health – summary of seminar in Dundee 30.11.16

(This is the press release issued following the event)

Today’s event in Dundee, looking at the health impacts of air pollution in Dundee, and ways in which air quality could be improved, was significant not just for the subject being discussed. It also marked an important step in bringing different perspectives together to tackle a serious social and economic issue. The event was organised by Friends of the Earth Tayside with the support and active involvement of Dundee City Council, and participation by specialists in public health, campaigners for walking and cycling, academics and community representatives.

Air pollution as experienced in British cities today is very different from the smog of the 1950s. It is generally invisible, made up of gases and very fine particles which can move from the lungs into the circulatory system. Dr Jackie Hyland, a consultant in Public Health with NHS Tayside, explained that the health effects are now well established. Air pollution reduces the birthweight of babies and restricts the development of children. It is associated with the onset of asthma and other respiratory conditions in children and adults, and is a risk factor for lung cancer. It contributes to diabetes and the incidence of strokes and heart attacks in susceptible individuals. Air pollution is therefore frequently responsible for earlier death, and more debilitating illness, where people suffer from these conditions.

Dr Hyland highlighted the economic costs of air pollution in terms of lost productivity at work and early deaths. She went on to emphasise the benefits to people’s health, and to local economies, from more active lifestyles. This “win-win” effect of promoting walking and cycling as an alternative to travelling by car emerged as a strong theme from the discussions.

Tom Stirling, Head of Community Safety and Protection for Dundee City Council, explained the air quality management situation in Dundee and the progress that has been made in tackling air pollution at certain hotspots. The makeup of traffic varied between locations, so that there was no single solution, and a range of 32 measures were being pursued through the Air Quality Action Plan. The Council had a key role to play, but to make a real difference it needed others to contribute – such as employers, transport providers and the public. Dundee’s air quality was also affected by external factors such as: Government policy which had encouraged the growth in numbers of diesel vehicles; the European emission standards; the weather; and the movement of air pollution across borders.

John Berry, Dundee City Council’s Team Leader for Sustainable Transport, was concerned that buses might be considered as the main problem in relation to air pollution, when in fact much cleaner buses were available if the investment could be made. However, this was difficult for the operators to justify given the current passenger numbers and revenues. A culture change was needed to make bus travel more popular, as well as to enable more road space to be given to cyclists, and to encourage more children to walk and cycle to school. There were encouraging signs though of an increase in the number of people cycling, whilst Dundee was making good progress in promoting the uptake of electric vehicles as reported earlier in the week (with the decision to allow free parking for electric vehicles in DCC car parks).

Emilia Hanna, Friends of the Earth Scotland campaigner on air pollution, called for progress towards introduction of a Low Emission Zone in Dundee, and for a commitment to a year-on-year increase in spending on walking and cycling. As evidence of the benefits of increased funding, she gave the example of Seville, where a significant investment in new cycling infrastructure led to the share of trips taken on cycles increasing from 0.5% in 2006 to 7% in 2013, and levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution being more than halved between 2000 and 2012.

Participants at the event had the opportunity to consider other ideas for improving air quality in the city. Proposals included the creation of park and ride facilities and a network of safe cycle routes, the facility to carry bikes on buses, and a shift in habits within the community towards more sustainable travel, with the support of employers. There was a call for those involved to work with and support the Council’s efforts.

The organisers of the event intend to arrange further discussions with those involved, and aim to ensure that air pollution and sustainable transport are seen as priority issues in the run up to the local elections in May 2016.

(Thanks also to Friends of the Earth Scotland for its active support for this event, as part of the national campaigns on air pollution and climate change)

Further information on the health impacts of air pollution is provided in this earlier post.