Nine more people in Bristol and 13 in Derby are going to have a stroke because of air pollution. Dirty air will give 12 more people in Birmingham and 87 in London a heart attack. In Liverpool, seven extra children with asthma will be hospitalised, as will five more in Nottingham.
These stark figures from King’s College London on the impact of high pollution days on individual towns are a reminder that dirty air is a killer and that the climate emergency is a health emergency.
But it is also a clear warning that while the NHS and local government are gradually getting to grips with the air pollution crisis, piecemeal solutions will fail without massive government action.
Cutting air pollution by a fifth would result in 77 fewer children in Oxford and 150 in Southampton suffering low lung function each year. Twenty fewer people in Manchester and 17 in Liverpool would develop lung cancer.
Like the microscopic particles themselves, air pollution is sometimes difficult to detect in the climate emergency debate. It is certainly part of the narrative, but the immediacy and severity of its threat is yet to be highlighted fully by campaigners.
It is hard to think of a more compelling message than we are being poisoned in our own homes, right now, every day.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has been one of the most outspoken campaigners, ramming home the message that 86% of UK children are breathing dangerous levels of toxic air. The harm even begins before birth: a Belgian study found thousands of pollution particles per cubic millimetre of tissue in every one of 25 placentas they examined of non-smoking women in a low-pollution town.
One of the key advisers to the college is clinical researcher Professor Stephen Holgate. His expert evidence was crucial in persuading the high court to overturn the coroner’s verdict that nine-year-old Lewisham girl Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death in 2013 was caused by asthma. Her mother, Rosamund, wants the new inquest next year to consider whether Ella was killed by air pollution. Such a verdict would be a world first.
Public services are beginning to mobilise. The NHS is responsible for a third of the public sector’s carbon emissions, while health and social care together account for around 6% of the carbon footprint of England. Although these emissions have fallen by approximately 20% over the past decade, the NHS has struggled to make reduction a central goal. But that is changing.
The King’s College analysis brutally exposes that this a health crisis. NHS chief executive Simon Stevens is now pushing that argument, giving licence for NHS organisations to act. Newcastle upon Tyne hospitals NHS foundation trust has declared a climate emergency and is tackling the problem with energy and creativity, looking at everything from ambulances to anaesthetic gas.
Greater Manchester and its mayor, Andy Burnham, are aiming to make the city carbon neutral by 2038, with plans including taking control of the bus network and tackling heavily polluting coaches, lorries and taxis.
But Scottish Power has exposed the deception behind the UK government’s declared aim of zero carbon emissions by 2050. It estimates that to achieve this the UK will need 25m charging points for electric vehicles – which means installing 4,000 a day – and 23m electric heat pumps to replace home gas boilers, all at a cost of £300bn.
This rams home the scale of action required if the zero emissions target is to be anything other than meaningless rhetoric.
Local public services have big contribution to make to cleaning up our air. But without a huge push from central government we are doomed to keep hearing rubbish as we breathe dirt.