Killing us softly every day: why the UK must wise up on air quality | Yvonne Roberts

In these inflationary times when money is tight, are you preoccupied with rising – or dropping – house prices? First, take a deep breath. Or better still, don’t. Last week, we learned that almost every home in the UK suffers from air pollution above the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, according to the most detailed map of dirty air to date. Using the excellent to check pollution levels at a click – produced by the Central Office of Public Interest (Copi), run by civic-minded creatives and makers of commercials – my house, or, rather, its position, minutes away from London’s south circular, has a percentile rating of 96 relative to other UK addresses, exceeding WHO guidelines by an alarming three times.

Those levels will be similar to those found in many areas in cities across the UK: the air that urbanites breathe can promote cancer, cause asthma, trigger bronchitis and kill. Living on fresh air begins to take on a wholly benevolent meaning., crowdfunded and launched nationwide in March 2021, uses data from Imperial College London to give the levels of particulate pollutants PM2.5 and PM10 and nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas released when diesel, petrol and gas are burnt. Admirably, as a result of Copi’s efforts, it is now a legal obligation for estate agents, landlord and property owners to reveal the level of air pollution in a property.

Copi wants tenants in heavily polluted areas to demand rent reductions, and some house sellers could see the value of their property plummet, as the urban exodus gathers pace (areas of the Lakes receive a breathtaking 12 and lower rating on the Copi website). Better still, properly restrict those industries profiting from pollution, assaulting the country’s lung capacity. Government’s unwillingness to do so, unsurprisingly, is nothing new.

According to London Fog: The Biography, by the academic Christine L Corton, concerns were first raised in the 17th century. Later, since it was London’s East End that had the worst of the noxious fumes, that’s where the poor were forced to raise their children. After the First World War, the pulpit of St Paul’s was hidden in a blanket of fog, at the very moment when, ironically, the day’s reading was “I am the light of the world”. Only after the capital’s great killer fog of 1952 was the Clean Air Act (1956) passed and the smog lifted.

Now, campaigners, local authorities and the pandemic have made us all more aware. In 2019, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, brought in the ultra-low emission zone, reducing the number of the most polluting vehicles (but not enough). Eloquent Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, whose daughter, Ella, died aged nine in 2013, the coroner citing air pollution as a cause of death, has constantly spoken out. Government, she rightly says, is “failing the public”. Then, came the pandemic.

In the space of two years, breathing has become a national concern. For the first time, on our television screens day after day, we have witnessed what it means to be short of breath: the invisible has become visible. Ventilation matters – but not when the open city window lets in a different potential killer. “When government fails,” says the Copi website, “we have to act.” How true.

Yvonne Roberts is a freelance journalist, writer and broadcaster

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