Air pollution | What can you do to clean up the air that you breathe?

Find out what you can do to clean up the air you breathe, in time for National Clean Air Day on June 20.

I went for a bike ride the other day, on one of those Boris bikes, just for a short spring morning cycle through the green, sunny spaces of Hyde Park. All very lovely, and afterwards, as I congratulated myself for coming through unscathed - no aggressive van drivers or inattentive cars to land me in a heap by the side of the road, I turned to give myself a quick tidy before I went into a meeting. Looking in the mirror to brush my hair, I saw to my horror that my skin was covered in minuscule black specks. It brought the pollution discussions so prominent in the media at the moment very clearly right to my front door.

Tiny specks, but definitely not good, from either a fashion or a health perspective: presumably those very same particulates that are part of the problems that the Extinction Rebellion protestors, and their passionate youthful advocate, Greta Thunberg, have now so successfully brought to all our attentions.

I know London is not, for instance, Beijing, with its thick black air, or Delhi, also competing on the global stage for the highest levels of polluted atmosphere, but we are up there - or should it be down there - rapidly slipping down the clean air slopes to join the rankings of the worst in the world. Oxford Street, London’s most packed shopping street had, until fairly recently, the highest levels of diesel pollution in the world. Did anyone ever tell you? Did you know you were inhaling hideously high quantities of invisible pollutants as you spent that happy morning browsing obliviously through the racks of everything from Primark to Selfridges? Gordon Brown did us few favours when he introduced diesel tax breaks and persuaded so many to bin their petrol-guzzling cars.

Dirty air is a major health issue for all of us, whether you live in the pesticide, crop spraying countryside, and drive for miles each day to simply go about your business, use the buses, trains or simply walk the streets of our polluted exhaust fume filled cities. You simply cannot escape the toxic emissions of the vehicles that dominate all our lives.

Air pollution is at number two, just below smoking, in the lists of causes of illness and death in the UK. That’s the equivalent of every single one of us smoking a cigarette every day - and we all know what that could do to our lungs over a lifetime. The particulates are minuscule, and can travel deep into the lungs, increasing the risk of developing asthma and lung cancer as well as reducing IQ levels. Pollution triggers tissue inflammation and research links it too to the soaring rise of obesity. Live near a major main road or in a polluted air area and your likelihood of developing diabetes, having a heart attack or a stroke also rises. Particulates affect children’s developing brains, and are now associated with the rise in mental health issues.

So what to do about air pollution?

Politicians talk of taxes, of reining in the car manufacturers who for decades have been tampering with their emissions levels; of passing a Clean Air Act. We clearly need to ban or restrict the numbers of diesel and petrol cars, but until solar charged batteries and electric cars are in place to offer viable alternatives, these offer little solution to immediate problems right now. Talk is of air pollution monitoring, postcode by postcode, and even traffic bans. But those amongst us who qualify for the car NIMBY (Not in my back yard) awards are all quite crafty. I remember Athens, decades ago, attempted to reduce the pollution that shrouded the city in smog by allowing specific number-plates to only drive on certain days of the week. All that happened was that those who could afford it (and these were affluent pre-Europe days) simply bought a second car. The car industry was temporarily boosted, and the traffic jams and pollution levels stayed exactly the same.

Lateral and creative thinking is needed urgently to avoid similar debacles. In California they are developing roofing granules that suck smog from the air and turn pollutants into water soluble ions. In Italy they are building giant tower blocks covered in greenery, each one of which, every year, sucks up around 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide, releases 19 tonnes of oxygen into the air and absorbs 80kgs of pollutants and particulates. In Mexico City, one of the most polluted places in the world, they are creating gigantic murals with a special Airlite paint that turns air pollutants into harmless mineral salts. Three murals alone are expected to reduce the effects of the equivalent of 60,000 vehicle emissions annually. The Mayor of London has pledged to turn all the buses in the capital to zero emissions by 2037 - but that feels a very long way away. Perhaps he might appeal to Banksy instead, copy Mexico and fund a few tons of special paint - a more rapid and less costly solution in the much shorter term?

I’ve read a multitude of reports and media articles on the subject but while we wait patiently for the Government to take action, which in these all-consuming Brexit agony we are all living through may take some time, there must be something more immediate we can do to protect ourselves.

What can you do to clean up your exposure to pollution?

* Taking the back roads to school or work can reduce your exposure to pollution by up to 90%. Walk a short way away from the pavement and levels drop dramatically.

* Give up your fashion sense - and invest in one of those face masks so beloved of the average Japanese Tourist. I tried one out last year, and walking down the street in it, in broad daylight in an area where I risked bumping into people I might know, still ranks as one of my most mortifying experiences ever. But this is your health you are talking about- and one can take the old adage, ‘You must suffer to be beautiful’ a step too far. Far and away the best of these masks, which removes 99.98% of even the finest of particulates is the r-pur.

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* O2 nose filters may be a less visible option. These are small plastic air filters you position up your nose that stop 90 per cent of larger particles and 70 per cent of smaller one from penetrating your lungs. If you travel by the underground this should be a health essential. Research from Kings College London shows that particulate levels are 30 times higher in tube stations than in the middle of a busy main road - and the deeper you travel, the higher those numbers rise.

* Choose a job where they have air-conditioned offices and walk or cycle to work if you can.

* At home, cut down on those scented candles we are all now so fond of - they apparently cause more pollution than the equivalent of breathing deeply by a busy road.

* Add innumerable pot plants to your sitting room and kitchen (here’s a list of the best pot plants for reducing air pollution); throw in an air filter to boot and you should breathe considerably happier.


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Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health. 

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