Fighting for Air: Can we Reduce Air Pollution in a Day?

Air pollution has highly detrimental effects on our health and leads to over 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year. In urban areas, death rates are dangerously high, and London has the highest nitrogen dioxide levels of any European capital. In fact, the situation seems entirely hopeless.

We have learned to live with the threats that hang over our heads every day. We believe it’s too late to make a difference, and that nothing’s going to change in the long run. But is that really true?

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“Assumptions that it’s too late to solve anything get in the way of a forward-moving, clearly beneficial plan of action.”

In the BBC documentary Fighting for Air, presenter and medical doctor, Dr Xand van Tulleken, works with Birmingham’s local government and a team of air quality experts to try and challenge levels of pollution – in just one day. 

King’s Heath is a suburb to the south of Birmingham. Its high street is driven up and down daily by thousands of commuters who often take this route to avoid the congested motorways into the city. The high street attracts shoppers who, unwittingly, are significantly shortening their life expectancy through the breathing of toxic gases: nitrogen oxides and particulate matter coming out of cars’ exhaust pipes.

With the help of Dr van Tulleken, air quality professor Roland Leigh (University of Leicester) and pollution expert Prof. Rob MacKenzie (Birmingham University), a group of King’s Heath locals of all walks of life come together in view of a special “day of action”. They meet up to discuss what they think causes air pollution levels to be so high and start to imagine different solutions. Many problems relate to the general public or to businesses, and offered solutions would require large-scale changes.

Although most of these solutions could be given a trial, it is far more difficult to put them into practice than it seems, especially when so many people who have financial interests in the current situation are involved. Business owners along the high street fear that the lack of parking spaces will prevent their customers from coming to their shops as usual. Bus companies claim that electric buses are not as functional, as they can only drive 150 miles without a charge against 250 miles without refuelling for current buses; and reducing the number of buses would not attract as many customers.

The team decides to restrict parking spaces for their “day of action”, as well as installing hedges along the pavements that will act as natural barriers against the pollution. With the support of councilor Lisa Trickett, traffic lights will be synchronised for the day, meaning that there will be a wave of green lights along the high street which will help the traffic run smoother. Coach service National Express also agreed to participate in the experiment by giving 200 free tickets to be used by the locals.

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When the day arrives, the number of vehicles using the high street is no less than usual. However, the results of the analysis coming from pollution measurements are extremely promising: nitrogen oxide levels have gone down by 20% and particulate matter levels have gone down by 30%. If these results were kept up for the long-run, the positive impact made on the community’s health as well as the environment would be massive.

Dr van Tulleken’s experiment demonstrates that there’s still time to make a difference. With a few small changes, a very significant drop in pollution occurred in almost no time at all. What if these adjustments were to continue past a single day? What if they were put in place all over the country? Assumptions that it’s too late to solve anything get in the way of a forward-moving, clearly beneficial plan of action. As evidenced by Dr van Tulleken’s team, it only takes a handful of motivated people to make a difference.

Fighting for Air. Broadcast January 20th 2018. BBC Productions. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09m2djj

 

About the Author: Laëtitia Fox is in her third year of studying BA Language and Culture at University College London.

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