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How does air pollution affect our health and what can we do about it?

On 13th June, Sustainable Merton staff and volunteers, representatives from other local groups and councillors, attended an informative and lively meeting on air pollution.

Around 50 of us heard an excellent overview of the research into air pollution, its effects on us all, and what we as a community and individuals can do about it.

Clean Air Merton, a local group which campaigns for action to clean up our air, organised and chaired the meeting.

The research- how harmful is air pollution?

Dr Ian Mudway, a researcher from Kings College London, explained that air pollution, having previously been a low-profile issue, is these days the subject of much concern and interest. He said that it shortens life expectancy, worsens existing health conditions, and degrades the quality of people’s lives.

Shockingly, in the UK, some forty thousand people die prematurely from air pollution every year. Ian stressed that it particularly affects the development of children, and that residents of less wealthy areas often suffer more as they tend to live in places that have greater exposure to air pollution.

Taking the Government to court to clean up our air

Andrea Lee, Healthy Air Campaigner from Client Earth, explained how her organisation has repeatedly taken the Government to court over its failure to keep air pollution below the legal limit. She explained that we have a “legal right to breathe clean air”, but that the UK is breaching the limit for nitrogen dioxide that should have been met in 2010. Only three out of 43 zones in the UK meet the target!

In short, the courts have agreed with Client Earth that the Government needs to tackle the problem effectively and without further delay.

A big sticking point, Andrea explained, has been that whilst the Government says Local Authorities must deal with air pollution, it does not give them the funds to do so. Also, the Government’s air pollution plan now asks Local Authorities to try every voluntary means of reducing air pollution possible BEFORE imposing Low Emission Zones. This “jumping through hoops” will delay urgently needed action on air pollution, Andrea suggested.

Local action – “we are not powerless”

Sustainable Merton CEO Tom Walsh (pictured below) explained that we might feel powerless to act on this issue, but that there ARE things we can do.

  • We can educate people about the importance and risks of air pollution.

  • We can measure nitrogen dioxide and particulates- something that Sustainable Merton has been doing, and which has encouraged the borough “to up its own game” on air pollution, Tom thought.

  • We can avoid taking the most polluted routes to work or school, and in the longer term we can “plan travel out of our lives” by doing more of our work and play locally.

  • We can plant trees, and use other natural methods. Tom explained, for instance, that certain types of moss can even absorb 250 times more pollution than a London plane or oak tree, and these might be used in the borough.

We need to back the Mayor of London’s plan to create a Low Emission Zone, Tom said, and push for it to cover a wider area of London.

Any questions?

The many questions for the panellists covered every aspect of air pollution, its effects and what we might do to reduce them.

We discussed car clubs such as “Zipcar”, the need to introduce and extend low emission zones, to have more electric car charging points, plant more trees and protect existing ones. Questions covered the impact of airplane and incinerator emissions (still not fully understood), whether to tax/ regulate or to provide “incentives” to people and industry to pollute less, and much else.

What now?

We were urged to let Clean Air Merton know what contributes to air pollution in their area, how we thought it might be tackled, to let them know if we’d be willing to contact a local primary school about the issue, or other local groups.

Through Sustainable Merton we can give ideas on tackling air pollution to Merton’s “Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Panel”, as Councillor Bull mentioned (he is a Committee member).


Community Champion


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