Deadly air in our cities: the invisible killer

(The Guardian, 17 Mar 2019) Traffic pollution is putting our children at risk. We meet campaigners – many of them concerned mothers – fighting back.

In the winter you can taste and smell the pollution,” says Kylie ap Garth, drinking coffee in a cafe in Hackney, east London. “My eldest is eight and he has asthma. Being outside, he would have a tight chest and cough. I just assumed it was the cold weather. I didn’t realise there was a link to the cars.”

She is not exaggerating. The main road from Bethnal Green tube station is clogged with traffic, the smell of diesel fumes mixing with smoke from barbecue grill restaurants and construction dust. Anyone trying to escape from the roadside to the canal towpath finds only that the fumes are swapped with coal smoke from the canal boats.

“I hadn’t made the connection before either,” says Shazia Ali. “I’m from Birmingham and have lived near main roads all my life. It was leaded petrol that was supposed to be the major thing. I can’t remember people talking about diesel fumes. Then, in 2015, I became pregnant with my third child … my husband and oldest child were diagnosed with asthma, and I read about the Exhale study. Suddenly air pollution came onto my family’s radar.”

The Exhale (Exploration of Health and Lungs in the Environment) study tested the lung volume of eight and nine-year-old children in more than 25 schools in east London, and the findings were shocking. As a result of the high levels of traffic pollution, the children’s lung capacity had been stunted. Dr Ian Mudway, a respiratory toxicologist at King’s College London, said at the time: “The data show that traffic pollution stops children’s lungs growing properly … by eight-to-nine-years-old, children from the most polluted areas have 5-10% less lung capacity and they may never get that back.”

In fact, that research was merely the latest in a long line of studies around the world that had reached the same conclusion: children living near busy roads grew up with stunted lungs. The Californian Children’s Health Study, ongoing since 1993, measures the lung function of thousands of schoolchildren over five-to-seven-year periods. Living within a third of a mile from a motorway was associated with a 2% reduction in lung capacity. In particular, exposure to NO₂ (nitrogen dioxide, a gas that comes from vehicle fumes and boilers) and PM2.5 (tiny particles suspended in the air) damages our lungs and can even enter our bloodstream.

External link

The Guardian, 17 Mar 2019: Deadly air in our cities: the invisible killer