Summary of Air Pollution & Health programme on BBC iPlayer!

A good overview of the growing problem of air pollution and its effects on our health, was presented in “Bang Goes the Theory” broadcast on 29 April 2013 on BBC1.   Link to programme web page.  This was very timely, two days before the Courier’s debate on Forth Energy’s proposed biomass plant in Dundee.

The 30 minute programme was very informative especially on the impact that diesel vehicles are having.

It explained the difference between the two main air pollutants that affect our health in towns and cities – Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), and particulates (very small dust particles).  NO2 is produced from any combustion process, such as a biomass power station or a bonfire.  It irritates our lungs and causes problems especially for those with existing respiratory difficulties.  Peaks in NO2 levels are followed by increased admissions to hospitals.  Some of these people die.  In fact, air pollution causes the early death of 29,000 people each year in the UK, three times as many as die early due to obesity.

Recent studies are showing that particulates – especially the smaller ones known as PM2.5s – seem to be able to pass through the lining of the lungs and into the blood stream, where they can affect the performance of the heart and the arteries.  This effect can be quite rapid, and the programme showed a woman showing clear signs of impairment in her blood vessel functions after only an hour of window shopping in Oxford Street!

Diesel engines used to be seen as environmentally better than petrol, due to the lower fuel consumption figures, but now there is strong evidence of the damage caused by sooty emissions from them.  Older vehicles are a particular problem.

National and local governments in the UK are struggling to cope with high air pollution levels, as the situation in Dundee illustrates, with no improvement since the severity of the air pollution was identified and the entire city was declared an Air Quality Management Area in 2006.  Certain areas of the city continue to have average levels of pollution that exceed the internationally agreed safe limits (see this earlier post).  That’s one reason why the proposed biomass power station is such an unwelcome prospect.

Some European cities are doing much more to control traffic flows and exclude vehicles from some areas.  Berlin was the example used in the programme, where cycling and use of public transport are actively encouraged, older vehicles are banned from certain areas, and car parking is restricted.  One of those who has led this action (Dr Axel Friedrich) stated that “25% of cars and gtrucks produce 75% of the pollution”.  Asked if the measures were unpopular, he responded “To whom does the city belong, the car or the people?”  Emissions of diesel soot have dropped by 60% in 4 years.  Apparently 60,000 a year die early in Germany because of air pollution.  The action in Berlin is already saving 500 lives per annum, and shows how everyone is now benefiting from decisions which were unpopular to begin with.

Other European cities such as Copenhagen, Graz, Paris and Amsterdam have also introduced measures to restrict car use and promote cycling.  It would be good to see Dundee taking a lead in Scotland, building on some of the positive steps that have been taken with the improvements to bus services, pedestrianisation of much of the city centre, and the establishment of some excellent cycle routes including the Green Circular.  But much more needs to be done, such as extending the network of safe cycle paths, introduction of a smart card for bus services, more local commuter services on the railway, and road crossings which give more time for pedestrians to cross.

(post revised 5 June 2013)