Opinion: The Air We Breathe

Some things are plain to see such as graffiti, neglected estates or general grot spots. However, in the case of the quality of the air we breathe, it is less apparent where there has been a breach of safety standards set by the World Health Organisation. Perhaps this is also why it is easier for the Government and local authorities to ignore the warning signs.

But should we be complacent and take the view that air quality problems are too big for us to tackle at the local or even national level? Sometimes it takes an external force to bring us to task and earlier this year the European Commission started action against 10 Member States including the UK for failing to comply with the EU’s air quality standard for dangerous airborne particles (known as PM10s). These particles when inhaled can cause asthma, cardiovascular problems and lung cancer.

Or perhaps, you will say that it is a matter of priorities. With our current global recession and with UK’s own share of the economic crisis, environmental concerns must surely be forced to take a back seat?

Indeed that was our London Mayor, Boris Johnson’s view when he decided in his wisdom not to bring in the higher emissions standard and Low Emission Zone (LEZ) for the white van man, originally scheduled to come into force in October of next year.

The LEZ was first introduced by the last Mayor, Ken Livingstone to encourage lorries and high polluting vans to meet required emission standards as they enter the perimeter surrounding London. Our current Tory mayor however has decided to delay unilaterally the next phase of the LEZ. This was against the advice and evidence given by experts to the London Assembly including Simon Birkett of the Campaign for Clean Air in London.

Also giving evidence was Professor Frank Kelly from Kings College London who told the panel that poor air quality can “drive people to an early death” and the elderly and children are the most vulnerable.

As for the need to implement better air quality at local level, I must say that whenever I walk towards the Hammersmith tube station on the Broadway I am more than aware of the smell of the traffic fumes that we are all forced to inhale. On further research, I was even more alarmed to discover that the 2 main sites (at Broadway and Brook Green) in the borough for monitoring air quality both closed in January of this year. I have since looked into this and have been informed that it was in part due to planned road works in the area. However based on historic figures that are available, minimum safety standards for level of Nitrogen dioxide have been breached since records were kept in 2000 and were exceeded by about a factor of 3!

So what can we conclude from this? The Labour Government has recently been sued for breaching WHO standards. The expansion of Heathrow and the building of a third runway can only make matters worse. The Tories have paid lip service (Vote Blue Get Green?) but Boris’s delay of the LEZ and advocacy of a brand new airport in the Thames estuary tell a different story.

The Lib Dems have on the other hand been campaigning for years for improvement in air quality and been consistently against Heathrow expansion. In 2005 we highlighted that no less than 1000 people in London die from premature death each year or 10,000 over the next 10 years. That is more than 4 times the number of people who die from road accidents!

If we value our health and quality of life then we need to wake up to the fact that the Air quality debate is more relevant today than ever before. It is in fact more pressing than Climate Change and the more sexy debate on CO2 emissions and yet may impact on the outcome of both. PM10s and NO2s may not quite trip off the tongue just yet but keep repeating them as I have and you may start preaching about this too!

PS Anyone interested to check on the air quality level in your borough, just log on to this website and find the relevant area on the map.

Merlene Emerson is the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Spokesperson for Hammersmith.

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