Are you planning a trip to Thailand? If so, you might want to invest in a PM2.5 filtering face mask. You’re going to need it.
A toxic cloud is smothering Bangkok, forcing the closure of 400 schools and flooding hospitals with residents who are sneezing and coughing up blood. The culprit is the unhealthy level of air pollution which two weeks ago reached a high of 170 according to The World Air Quality Index.
In Bangkok, the government is busy treating the symptoms rather than the causes of the air quality crisis. Telling students to stay home from school, encouraging people to wear facial masks and hosing down the streets does nothing to enact meaningful, systemic change. The logic is equivalent to someone using a plaster to fix a hole in a sinking ship.
This comparison might sound dramatic, but the WHO has identified Air Pollution as the next ‘smoking’ in terms of the risk it poses to public health. Nine in ten people globally breathe dirty air resulting in an estimated 7million unnecessary deaths each year. A 2018 study by the BMJ linked exposure to dirty air with the development of dementia and cognitive defects. A further study found the first evidence that particulates can pass through a pregnant mother’s lungs and lodge in their placenta, harming unborn children.
The UK media tends to point the finger at developing countries such as China and India, but the problem is global. In September this year, the Swedish Company BlueAir donated nine air purifiers to a school in Holborn. Normally BlueAir only donate filters to air pollution ‘blackspots’ (such as India, Korea and China), but they made an exception after dangerous levels of particulate pollution were found in every classroom in the school.
Like in Thailand, the UK government’s response to the Air Quality challenge has proved inadequate to the task. The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove wants to halve the number of people living in areas with unsafe air pollution levels by 2025- a target which is hardly progressive given that 90% of people living in greater London are exposed to levels of air pollution above WHO guidelines. While Norway plans to ban all new sales of petrol and diesel vehicles (the main culprits for poor urban air quality) by 2025, and India by 2030, the UK is lagging behind with a target of 2040.
It’s time that the government take the problem seriously by setting more ambitious targets.
Their negligence feels even more callous given that exposure to unclean air is linked to class. Take the case of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl from Lewisham who died from acute respiratory failure and asthma in 2013. An inquest into Ella’s death found a ‘striking association’ between Ella’s hospital admissions and recorded spikes in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and PM10s. In London, property prices tend to fall closer to heavily trafficked areas and it is believed that Ella’s condition was made worse by frequently walking to school along London’s South Circular Road.
When the UK leaves the EU we will lose the legal infrastructure currently used to hold ministers to account when environmental standards are not met. Without the EU commission to take enforcement action the government’s proposed Environment Bill will establish an Environmental Watchdog after Brexit. The watchdog will lack clear legislative powers, but will be required to take the ‘costs and benefits of action and inaction’ into account when environmental standards are found to have been breached. Needless to say, financial expediency is set to win out over public health.
It is vital that awareness is raised about the risks posed by unclean air so that pressure will continue to be put on the government by the public and opposition leaders. Urgent multilateral action is needed to set global standards for Air Quality and develop cleaner fuel alternatives to power vehicles. Whether you’re living in London, Bangkok or elsewhere everyone deserves to breathe clean air.