Air pollution leaves many Londoners like Catherine Bazell housebound, and as the severe impacts on health become clearer the call for greater action is rising
Last modified on Tue 28 Aug 2018
Catherine Bazell looks out from her first floor flat towards the familiar landmarks of central London as a steady stream of cars and vans trundle by on the road below.
“Me and my mum and dad used to love taking bus trips for the day when I was a girl,” says the 73-year-old. “We would get a bus and just go off exploring different bits of the city.”
Bazell pauses for a moment before adding: “I wish I could do that now with my granddaughter but there’s no way, the pollution is just too bad.”
Bazell was born in London during the second world war and suffers from the debilitating lung condition bronchiectasis as well as asthma, leaving her all but housebound during the worst bouts of air pollution.
“I was born with a bad chest but it slowly started to get better when they brought in the Clean Air Act [in 1953] and we got rid of the coal smoke and all that … but in the last 15 or 20 years it is back and worse than ever.”
Bazell is one of hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are blighted by the UK’s air pollution crisis. Officials say at least 40,000 people die prematurely in the UK – 9,000 in London – with many more suffering long-term health problems.
In England and Wales last year, 1,320 people died of asthma, a rise of more than 25% since 2007
A spate of recent reports have underlined the scale of the crisis; asthma deaths are up; hospital admissions spike when air pollution worsens; children living in polluted areas are likely to grow up with smaller lungs and risk of lifelong health problems. And it is not just people’s lungs that are at risk – toxic air is increasingly linked to a range of deadly conditions including heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“Almost every week we are seeing more evidence of the damage air pollution is doing to the nation’s health,” said Alison Cook, director of policy at the British Lung Foundation . “It’s simply unacceptable that people in towns and cities across the country – particularly the young, the elderly and those with existing lung conditions – are being given no choice but to breathe dangerously dirty air in 2018.”
The government claims to be tackling the issue but many experts say it has repeatedly failed to take meaningful action. Ministers have refused calls for a new Clean Air Act and the government has been dragged through the courts over its record – and repeatedly been told by judges that its plans are so poor they are illegal.
However, some cities are starting to face up to the challenge. In Manchester the mayor, Andy Burnham, has said air pollution is one of his priorities and earlier this year he unveiled a far-reaching programme to encourage cycling. A host of other cities – including Birmingham, Leeds, Derby, Nottingham and Southampton – are working on proposals for clean air zones following the government’s latest court defeat.
But the most ambitious scheme is in London, where the mayor, Sadiq Khan, is planning an “ultra low emissions zone” (Ulez). The proposal will see the most polluting vehicles charged extra for entering the centre of the capital from April next year. In 2021 the zone will be extended to include all the roads within the North and South Circular, which officials predict will affect 100,000 cars, 35,000 vans and 3,000 lorries each day.
The plan has been batted back and forth between officials at Transport for London (TfL) and City Hall for five years. The final proposals unveiled in June show diesel cars – the main source of NO2 pollution – will have to pass the Euro 6 emissions standard [broadly those registered from 2014] and petrol cars the Euro 4 standard [those built after 2005] to avoid the daily £12.50 charge. There will also be restrictions on vans, buses and lorries.