Air Pollution, Oxford Street Buses and Nanoparticles

The Government wished to delay publication of its revised UK Air Quality Plan until after the General Election but after a legal challenge it was forced to publish it. See https://consult.defra.gov.uk/airquality/air-quality-plan-for-tackling-nitrogen-dioxide/ on how the Government plans to improve nitrogen dioxide emissions in particular.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan promptly slammed the proposals as “woefully inadequate” before he could have barely had time to read the full document (air pollution is a technically complex matter and it is necessary to read the whole document and the supporting evidence). In the Evening Standard he said: “I welcome that the government has agreed to consult on introducing a targeted diesel scrappage fund, as I have modelled, to help drivers who bought diesel vehicles in good faith. However, the government has failed to give a firm commitment and, even if it goes ahead, this alone would go nowhere near fixing the problem. City Hall analysis shows that the proposals still mean air quality will be at illegal levels until at least 2026.”

I will provide further and more considered comments on the proposals at a later date.

Meanwhile I am still awaiting a response to my FOI Request on the ULEZ proposals so as to enable a properly considered response to be made to that. It should arrive by the 10th May, but we will see.

In the meantime Transport for London (TfL) has taken steps to reduce pollution on Oxford Street (which is one of the worst locations in London) by introducing proposals to cut the number of buses by 40%. TfL says bus numbers can be reduced because of higher underground frequencies and the new Crossrail service which will open in December 2018. The consultation is present here:

https://consultations.tfl.gov.uk/roads/oxford-street/?cid=oxford-street . Comments: it is undoubtedly the case that the number of buses on Oxford Street not only makes it a very unpleasant street for pedestrians but also creates road safety dangers. Current diesel buses are of course some of the worse emitters of air pollution. Whether the proposals will improve matters substantially is not at all clear.

Another step to improve air pollution in London is the introduction of rapid electric vehicle charging points. TfL has appointed five suppliers to build such a network. These charge points can recharge a vehicle battery in 30 minutes and the plan is to have 300 installed by 2020, although some will be dedicated for use by taxis. All new London taxis must be zero-emission by January 2018.

The latest environmental scare story is the impact of nanoparticles on human health. An article in the New Scientist reported that these microscopic particles can enter the blood stream and they can remain there for over 3 months. The impact they have on health was unknown but the hypothesis given was that they could be having a major impact. In effect the article suggested that we might need to worry not so much about Nitrous Oxides or larger particulates, but about nanoparticles from vehicle pollution.

Nanoparticles are quite difficult to detect, but it is known that they are present everywhere. Indeed normal activities in the home, business activities and certainly industrial activities give off large amounts of nanoparticles which are simply invisible.

A very interesting article in the Financial Times on the 29th April explained how our homes can actually be one of the most polluted locations, often worse than the air outside even in the worst polluted cities. It said “A study published in the European Respiratory Journal in 2012 showed that concentrations of some air pollutants can be up to five times higher indoors than outdoors“. As we spend 90% of our time indoors, versus 10% outdoors, this is of concern. Cooking on gas, food cooking emissions, dog hairs, dead skin particles, lint particles from tumble dryers, deodorant sprays  and scented candles were all named as culprits. Log burning stoves are a particular problem which have become popular even in London of late. The solution is apparently to purchase an electric air purifier.

In summary, pollution is everywhere and always has been. Even green fields and trees can be a menace because of pollens and dust. Indeed I do recall reading a study many years ago that showed the prevalence of asthma was more common in rural areas than in cities.

So it’s easy to become paranoid about air pollution. It’s necessary to separate fact from fiction so that the picture is clear about which pollutants are of real concern and which are not. Otherwise we will get lost in a fog of hysteria.

Roger Lawson

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