London’s air pollution from PM2.5 is widespread and bad – electric vehicles don’t solve the problem
New research shows just how bad air pollution by PM2.5 is across London. The latest updated London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory, shows that every area in the capital exceeds WHO limits PM2.5, which are particularly bad for health as they penetrate deep into the lungs. The particles have serious health implications – especially for children – with both short- and long-term exposure increasing the likelihood of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Young people exposed to these pollutants are more likely to grow up with reduced lung function and develop asthma. However, the main sources of PM2.5 emissions in London are from tyre and brake wear, construction and wood burning. A recent European commission research paper found about half of all particulate matter comes from tyres and brakes. Cutting the number of diesel vehicles helps reduce NO2 levels, but even converting to electric does not solve the problem of the particles from tyres and brakes. Heathrow hopes getting more vehicles on the road network near the airport might reduce air pollution enough to get its runway – but that will not solve its PM2.5 problem.
Revealed: every Londoner breathing dangerous levels of toxic air particle
Exclusive: Every area of the capital breaches global standards for PM2.5 pollution particles, with most areas exceeding levels by at least 50%
By Matthew Taylor (Environment correspondent, Guardian)
Wednesday 4 October 2017
The scale of London’s air pollution crisis was laid bare on Wednesday, with new figures showing that every person in the capital is breathing air that exceeds global guidelines for one of the most dangerous toxic particles.
The research, based on the latest updated London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory, shows that every area in the capital exceeds World Health Organisation (WHO) limits for a damaging type of particle known as PM2.5.
It also found that 7.9 million Londoners – nearly 95% of the capital’s population – live in areas that exceed the limit by 50% or more. In central London the average annual levels are almost double the WHO limit of 10 µg/m3.
The findings, described as “sickening” by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, have serious health implications – especially for children – with both short- and long-term exposure to these particulates increasing the likelihood of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Health experts say that young people exposed to these toxic pollutants are more likely to grow up with reduced lung function and develop asthma.
Khan said: “It’s sickening to know that not a single area of London meets World Health Organisation health standards, but even worse than that, nearly 95% of the capital is exceeding these guidelines by at least 50%.”
London is widely recognised as the worst area for air pollution in the UK, although there is growing evidence that dangerously polluted air is damaging people’s health in towns and cities across the country.
Khan added: “We should be ashamed that our young people – the next generation of Londoners – are being exposed to these tiny particles of toxic dust that are seriously damaging their lungs and shortening their life expectancy. I understand this is really difficult for Londoners, but that’s why I felt it was so important that I made this information public so people really understand the scale of the challenge we face in London.”
The mayor’s office said approximately half of PM2.5 in London is from sources outside the city. However, the main sources of PM2.5 emissions in London are from tyre and brake wear, construction and wood burning.
Last week Khan unveiled plans to limit the use of wood-burning stoves in the capital from 2025 and tighten up regulations to make sure all new stoves from 2022 are as clean as possible.
He has also set out a range of plans to tackle pollution from diesel cars in the capital. The first stage, the new T-Charge, which will charge older, more polluting vehicles entering central London, starts later this month.
The figures were revealed as it emerged that the government has failed to bring down the number of regions across the UK with illegal levels of air pollution despite being ordered to by the courts.
According to figures submitted by ministers to the European Commission, 37 out of 43 zones across the UK are still in breach of pollution limits – the same number as in 2015 – despite the government being under a supreme court order to bring pollution down as soon as possible.
Clean air campaigners criticised the government’s inaction and welcomed Khan’s plans, which include the introduction of an ultra low emission zone in 2019.
But they called on the mayor to take more urgent, immediate action in light of the scale of the crisis.
Paul Morozzo, a clean air campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “London air isn’t safe to breathe. Every person in London is affected by this crisis – old or young, healthy or ill. The air you breathe in London is putting your health at risk now and in the future, whether you realise it or not.
“Restricting diesel will make a big difference to both PM and nitrogen oxide air pollution in London, which is why the mayor has no choice but to get tough on cleaning up our roads.”
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “Quite frankly, this research beggars belief and is deeply concerning for every Londoner. Toxic air is poisoning our children, making existing lung conditions worse, such as asthma. The mayor cannot solve this public health crisis without government support. We urgently need changes to taxation for new diesel vehicles and a diesel scrappage scheme.”
Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green party, said: “The mayor needs to decide whether he is going to commit to take the air pollution epidemic seriously or not. And that means making the right choices over the big polluting decisions. Creating pollution with one hand and then trying to waft it away with the other is no solution.
“The mayor can’t credibly claim to be tackling London’s dirty air when he is actively contributing to it by building the Silvertown tunnel, backing City airport expansion and failing to bring in a moratorium on waste incineration.”
The mayor released the latest findings on Wednesday morning as he signed London up to the Breathe Life coalition organised by the WHO, the body UN Environment and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, at the Child Health Initiative conference at City Hall.
The initiative aims to connect similar world cities, combine expertise, share best practice and work together to improve air quality.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, welcomed London’s support and Khan’s measures aimed at tackling air pollution.
“To ensure good health, every person must be able to breathe clean air no matter where they live. London’s plan to clean up their air means millions of people will be able to walk to work and walk their children to school without worrying about whether the air is going to make them sick. More cities around the world must also follow suit.”
Cars must be driven out of cities to tackle the UK’s air pollution crisis, not just replaced with electric vehicles, according to the UK government’s top adviser.
Prof Frank Kelly said that while electric vehicles emit no exhaust fumes, they still produce large amounts of tiny pollution particles from brake and tyre dust, for which the government already accepts there is no safe limit.
Toxic air causes 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK, and the environment secretary, Michael Gove, recently announced that the sale of new diesel and petrol cars will be banned from 2040, with only electric vehicles available after that. But faced with rising anger from some motorists, the plan made the use of charges to deter dirty diesel cars from polluted areas a measure of last resort only.
Kelly’s intervention heightens the government’s dilemma between protecting public health and avoiding politically difficult charges or bans on urban motorists. “The government’s plan does not go nearly far enough,” said Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London and chair of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, official expert advisers to the government. “Our cities need fewer cars, not just cleaner cars.”
Ministers were forced to produce an air pollution plan after being sued twice in the courts over illegal levels, but it was criticised as “woefully inadequate” and “lacking urgency” by city leaders and “inexcusable” by leading doctors. The government’s own research showed the fastest and most cost-effective measure to cut the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution largely caused by diesel engines is to charge dirty cars to enter urban areas.
Electric vehicles emit no NO2 but do produce small particle pollution from the wear on brake discs and tyres and by throwing up dust from roads. A recent European commission research paper found that about half of all particulate matter comes from these sources.
“While governments don’t currently pay much attention to particulate matter, it is in fact highly polluting, with strong links to cardiopulmonary toxicity,” said Kelly in an article in the Guardian.
The Royal College of Physicians estimates that 29,000 people die early each year from particle pollution, more than the 23,500 premature deaths attributed to NO2. The combined total is 40,000 because some people are harmed by both pollutants. NO2 levels are illegally high in most urban areas, allowing legal action to be taken, but small particle levels are not.
The legal limit in England and Wales for particulate matter is two and a half times the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guideline set in 2005and which has already been adopted in Scotland. London’s air is above the WHO limit but below that in England and Wales, said Kelly: “So it’s legal but unhealthy.” In any case, both the UK government and the WHO agree there is no safe level of small particle pollution.
Kelly said enabling people and goods to move easily and cheaply around cities such as London is crucial, especially as their populations are growing fast, and backed better public transport as the solution: “The safe and efficient movement of people around the capital can only be achieved through a clean and expanded mass transit system – served by buses, overground train and the underground system – and by as much active transport in the form of walking and cycling as is feasibly possible.”