From classic Sherlock Holmes mysteries to this year’s Netflix series The Crown, air pollution in London has played an atmospheric role in our entertainment culture for many years. It may create an air of nostalgia, excitement and mystery but the reality is harsh.
A Quick History Lesson
In early December 1952 industrial pollution from Europe combined with local pollution from coal fires and the cold weather conditions caused The Great Smog in London which lasted for five days. It caused major disruption, visibility was drastically reduced and people took to holding gauze fabric over their mouths to help them breath. It killed over 4,000 people and made more than 100,000 people ill.
Changes Had to Come
Although London had been affected by pollution for centuries, this was the worst air pollution event ever in the UK. It led to the introduction of the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1964 which included creating Smoke Control Areas where only smokeless fuel could be burned. Today, thanks to the changes made, London and other UK cities are no longer affected by these dense smogs.
The Invisible Killer
However, far less visible forms of air pollution have taken over. One problem is they are easier to ignore as we cannot see them. But they are still harming us and account for 40,000 deaths a year in the UK alone and 5.5 million deaths a year worldwide.
And Now the Science Lesson
The main pollutants nowadays are carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ground level ozone, particulates, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons and lead. These all come from different sources – many of them from vehicles – and have different effects on our health. For more info about pollutants, where they come from and what they do see the excellent resources (for kids, and adults who like an easy read) on the Scottish Air Quality website.
What Harm Does Air Pollution do?
Air pollution is associated with a wide range of health problems including respiratory diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis, asthma, impaired lung development in children, premature births and low birth weight, lung cancer and heart disease.
Children, older people and people with asthma are most at risk from air pollution, although it affects everyone – even unborn babies.
So What Can We Do About It?
The UK’s first National Clean Air Day is being held on 15th June to help raise awareness of the issues and provide information enabling individuals and organisations to tackle the problem.
Key travel-related actions we can take to prevent pollution include:
- Walking and cycling more so we use our cars less.
- Switching off idle engines when waiting in a car.
- Using electric vehicles instead of diesel vehicles, especially in cities; for example Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital only books electric taxis.
- Taking Clean Air issues into consideration when writing a school (or workplace) travel plan – for example teach pupils about the science behind pollution and combine it with a walk to school event.
Raising awareness of this issue is fundamental to finding solutions. Here’s what you can do:
- Follow #NationalCleanAirDay on social media and join in (before 15 June) with their thunderclap.
- Contact your Member of Parliament to let them know your concerns about air pollution. See if your local authority has already signed up to support National Clean Air Day.
- Support campaigns to make the air in our cities cleaner, such as the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street in London which Living Streets have been campaigning for.
- Use the educational resources listed below to raise awareness amongst pupils and their parents.
Are You an Educator?
These free resources are full of activities and information to bring air quality into the classroom.
Cleaner Air for Primary Schools Toolkit. Lots of classroom activity ideas including how to collect and test data on pollution (including a low cost test method).
Healthy Air website with lots of background information and a strong focus on resources for campaigning and awareness-raising.
Clean Air Day Website resources for schools including School Gate Vehicle Idling campaign materials and Clean Air Day pledge cards. Sign your school up!
Finally for a sum up of what the day is about download this printable leaflet about National Clean Air Day.