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Rosalind Skillen

Air pollution an epidemic which needs cleaning up

Rosalind Skillen

WHO estimates around 6-7 million die from the issue world-wide per year


Belfast is one of the most polluted cities in the UK

Belfast is one of the most polluted cities in the UK

Belfast is one of the most polluted cities in the UK

Of all the issues related to the climate crisis, air pollution could be the single issue which moves the dial on environmental politics. This is because air pollution concerns human health as well as planetary health.

Of course, every single environmental issue affects people as much as it does planet — rising temperatures and biodiversity loss clearly have a severe impact on human health.

However, air pollution seems to make this link more explicit to ordinary people, therefore touching them in a different way.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that between 6 and 7 million people die from air pollution every year.

This represents more deaths per year than road traffic accidents and passive smoking combined.

Most of these deaths are children, with air pollution being one of the most common causes of death in children under the age of five. In fact, one child dies of an illness caused by air pollution, like pneumonia or child cancer, every single minute.

The case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who died of air pollution in 2013, illustrates the tragic nature of this public health epidemic.

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Ella was the first person to have air pollution cited as cause of death on her death certificate. One of the causes of air pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, and the inquest into Ella’s death found that the levels of nitrogen dioxide near her home in Lewisham exceeded both WHO and EU guidelines.

While lungs are often talked about most when it comes to air pollution as a point of entry, this is a health risk that threatens all human organs. Pollutants, chemicals and particles entering the bloodstream cause extensive damage to every part of the body.

Dr Arvind Kumar, a lung surgeon from New Delhi and leading voice in this conversation, has called other medical professionals to use their voices to talk about air pollution.

Dr Kumar explains that this is not something that can be left to environmentalists, and that there is a clear role for doctors to play when it comes to public education on air pollution.

There is an environmental, health and economic incentive to do so, especially given that UK deaths from air pollution cost the NHS over £20bn a year. This equates to a fifth of their overall budget.

Thursday is ‘Clean Air Day’: an awareness day which puts air pollution at the front and centre of people’s minds. On the day, different types of events will take place throughout the UK, uniting environmentalists, scientists and businesses with the aim of raising awareness about air pollution: the largest environment health risk we face.

As one of the most polluted cities in the UK, and the 10th most congested city in Europe, it is important and necessary that Belfast engages in ‘Clean Air Day’.

In Northern Ireland, 500 people die every year because of air pollution and this could be due to the large quantities of liquid fossil fuels that we burn in our vehicles. Belfast is the most car-dependent city in the UK with the average person in Northern Ireland making 81.5% of all their journeys by car. This is significantly higher than the UK average of 63%.

As a city, it feels like Belfast has been built around cars as default. Cars have become a part of normal city life, just like the invisible and deadly killer that is air pollution. Yet, we cannot settle for either of these current realities.

With 82% of people claiming that air pollution should be a priority for the UK, it feels like we have reached a moment of collective awakening. Some politicians were already aware of this, recognising that policies to reduce air pollution offer a double win for people and planet.

For example, back in 2015, when former US President Barack Obama came out with his Clean Power Plan, he was hosted by the American Lung Association on the conference call. More recently, the UK Government announced that it aims to have new legal air pollution limits in place by October of this year. Public outrage is needed to drive more action from governments, because the reality is that there is very little that individuals can do.

Simply breathing puts nine out of 10 people at risk of asthma, cancer, heart disease — among other air pollution-related diseases.

A shocking 99% of the global population breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits because it contains such high levels of pollutants.

There is no vaccine against air pollution, but legally-binding legislation, Clean Air Strategies and incentivised, reliable transport systems can help to solve this problem.

Integrating air pollution in discussion about climate change only strengthens the argument for bold, ambitious environmental action.

It reminds us of the overlap between planetary and human health, and reinforces how tackling inequality and tackling climate change are not mutually exclusive.

Ultimately, like so many environmental issues, air pollution is tied up with questions of human rights, justice and equity.

After all, what could be a more fundamental human right than the ability to breathe clean air?

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