Air pollution and health

I am going to spend quite a bit of time this month examining the currently hot topic of air pollution. I live in London and until fairly recently, felt pretty safe living there. Traffic might be a major problem; the price of houses a never ending topic of concern both outside the school gates and at suppers all over town but until recently I felt pretty safe walking down the street. No longer. 

London has apparently overtaken Beijing, long the world leader in noxious air and high levels of death from air pollution. Remember the remarkable British entrepreneur who bottled empty jars of 'fresh English country air' and sold them in their thousands to desperate Chinese? Well, from the latest articles on the subject, it's unlikely his business will continue to flourish at the same rate. Imagine it, the poor polluted Chinese turning down what should be pure British air! Inconceivable until just a few months ago when the statistics began to come out of the woodwork.

The diesel debacle

Air quality has been in the news lots over the last few months with London and other major UK cities breaching limits on air pollution and instances of respiratory problems rising. The Government seems to have played an expensive trick on large swathes of the population, encouraging them to do their bit for the environment by changing over from petrol to diesel cars (I fell for that one, along with 11 million other people, and have driven a very noisy diesel mini that I don't like very much for the past 3 years) only to reverse the edict this year, making us no longer saviours of the countryside, but guilty polluters causing our fellow citizens unquantifiable harm.

The problem is down to 'particulates', invisible particles of pollution largely caused by diesel vehicles that meet emissions limits in official lab tests but emit far more on the road. It's not just VW that has been lying about their readings for years, but now, as more and more car companies are found out, it seems to be a car industry wide problem - and we are the ones that it could damage and even kill.

Diesel or Petrol: changing advice
Diesel or Petrol: changing advice

London: topping the league tables for the wrong reason

As the Guardian reported in February 2016, 'The greatest problem is with nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a pollutant that inflames the lungs, stunting their growth and increasing the risk of respiratory diseases such as asthma and lung cancer. London has an acute problem with NO2, possibly the worst in the world. Putney high street broke its annual emission limits just eight days into the new year, with Knightsbridge, Oxford Street, Earls Court and Brixton all following suit before the end of January. Across the country, the government estimates 23,500 people die prematurely from NO2 pollution. It went on to say in the same article 'In addition to NO2, particulate matter (PM) remains at double the WHO guideline levels. “It’s like inhaling little particles of tar,” says Prof Green. “They go right down into the lungs and can pass through the membrane into the bloodstream”, increasing the risks of strokes and heart attacks'.

If you live close to a major main road your risk is elevated, and thinking you are protected in your car as you attempt to drive in near stationary traffic down the motorway is no recipe for safety either. Levels of NO2 are 2.5 times higher inside the car than out. In fact, car drivers can be exposed to higher levels of air pollution inside their vehicle than on the pavement, suggesting that walking or cycling could be healthier. For those who need to drive, the British Lung Foundation (BLF) recommends keeping the windows closed and recycling the air in the car, rather than keeping air vents open.

Read up on the forecasts for high pollution days and stay inside as much as possible. Air pollution comes mainly from road traffic, so take the back streets and avoid major busy roads when walking to the shops or to school. One recent study also showed that air pollution can be a third lower on the inside of the pavement, compared to the kerbside.

Air pollution: Impact on life expectancy

The air pollution scandal has been running for years, but only now, in the past couple of years has the scale and the seriousness of the situation begun to emerge. As a Londoner, with current levels of pollution in the air, I am likely to live a full 16 months less than my country acquaintances.

Those of you living safely in the countryside, however, have different air pollution problems. I noticed when I was working with people with cancer at the Haven that many of those that came up from the country attributed their illness to the pesticides sprayed regularly on the fields close to their houses by the farmers planting their crops. Wind and rain carry the chemicals in the sprays to a far wider area than the fields they are intended for. Many of these pesticides are endocrine disrupters and the toxic build up over a long period can weaken your immune system leading to all sorts of physical problems.

Air and its lack of freshness is a problem for every one of us. What to do about it all? Read next week’s blog on 5 top tips for cleaner breathing....


Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, who founded one of the UK's largest breast cancer charities, The Haven, twenty years ago. With Reboot Health, Sara aims to bring the best preventative and curative health solutions ranging from nutrition, alternative therapies, fitness and conventional medicine.


Read the rest of our air and pollution series: