More on Air Pollution from the BBC and Closure of Beech Street

The latest piece of air pollution propaganda from the BBC was a television report that air pollution may affect your brain. This was based on a recently published Chinese study that long-term exposure to air pollution “could be linked to cognitive performance” (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-45326598 for the written version of the BBC’s report).

As is common with air pollution studies, this is based on an epidemiological study that showed that people who have lived in heavily polluted areas for a long time show less cognitive function on simple tests of math and verbal skills. It also suggests that there are differences in the impact between sex, age and education of the study participants which seems unexpected but they explain that as being affecting mostly men who have worked outside for long periods. The study was done in China where air pollution is of course a serious problem – for example Beijing has much worse air pollution that western cities such as London. The paper was published by the US National Academy of Sciences.

There is of course no evidence linking the possible causes to the effect and it could simply be that the selected participants suffer from the work they did, or the lack of mental exercise they took (cognitive functions decline if not used).

In summary, the scientific paper is just that and it is wrong to extrapolate it to suggest people in London or other cities are likely to be affected. Or is the report explained by BBC reporters spending too much time standing on College Green near Parliament Square, where they like to do interviews, and breathing in too much hot air? It certainly seems to be the case that talking about air pollution too much damages your brain.

Beech Street Closure

The City of London Corporation is still keen to tackle the problem of air pollution in Beech Street – this is the road that runs underneath the Barbican in a tunnel and is a key east-west route within the City. The only other alternative routes are via Old Street or City Wall which are both heavily congested. But Beech Street is one of the most heavily polluted roads in London for NOX emissions.

There are several options being considered. That includes restricting the road to Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEV) only, closing the road in both directions (but leaving access to the Barbican car parks) or just closing in the East-West or West-East directions. Traffic modelling of the possible closures is being considered but it would require building a large new model of traffic flows.

But the impact of a full closure is already known because in March 2018 the road was closed for 5 days. Average journey times on the roads north and south of Beech Street increased by 23%.

The report on this subject which is being considered by Corporation Committees in early September notes the likely objections from many City business and residents to any closure though.

Comment: It would be unfortunate if yet another key road in the City is closed to traffic. The road network in the City of London has been degraded substantially in recent years by road closures such as that of Bank Junction. Could the air pollution in Beech Street not be tackled by a forced ventilation system? But there is no mention of that being considered in the Corporation’s report.

Roger Lawson

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Fighting For Air – Another Piece of Air Pollution Propaganda from the BBC

Last night the BBC broadcast a programme on air pollution entitled Fighting for Air (BBC2 on 19/8/2018). It was presented by Dr. Xand van Tulleken in a populist and dramatic style.

He first did a simple test by “cleansing” his system by donning a chemical weapons suit followed by 3 hours of deliberately breathing in traffic fumes. He did blood pressure tests, analysed blood composition and checked for brain function before and after. This unscientific and uncontrolled test apparently showed a slight increase in blood pressure and blood clotting and possibly a very small change in cognitive function. No actual data was given. Bearing in mind that such tests as blood pressure can vary significantly from hour to hour, and the other tests likewise, this proves nothing at all. Note that there have been a number of scientific studies of a possible link between blood coagulation and air pollution but no clear conclusions about which pollutants are relevant and no specific link to heart disease or stroke risk identified. That did not stop Dr van Tulleken alleging such a link.

He then moved to Kings Heath High Street near Birmingham. This road exceeds national legal limits for NOX apparently by a small amount at some times. It is used by a large number of diesel buses (no hybrids or electrics), and by significant numbers of HGVs. Traffic is stop/start with high congestion because of traffic lights that are not linked and road side parking as people move in and out of the parking spaces.

Dr van Tulleken persuaded the local council to suspend the parking bays for a day (filled with bay trees instead) and to synchronise the traffic flights to provide a “green wave” and he also persuaded the bus company to offer free tickets. The result was the volume of traffic remained the same, but NO2 fell by 10%. It is not clear to what extent any adjustment was made for other factors such as weather changes although mention was made that the changes were measured against wider area changes.

Local shopkeepers were not happy particularly a butcher who had traded in the road for 50 years.

Comment: In summary all this programme showed is that smoothing traffic flows may significantly reduce some emissions from vehicles. We already knew that, for example from studies of speed hump schemes. Replacing road side parking by off-street parking is clearly something that councils should look at. I only wish that removing such parking be done in my local High Street (Chislehurst in the London Borough of Bromley) which has been proposed in the past but never progressed (there is already plenty of off-street parking). It would both reduce the air pollution and reduce congestion by improving the flow of traffic.

What the programme did not demonstrate was that air pollution is a major health hazard or a public health emergency as the Doctor disclaimed. Indeed the High Street Butcher demonstrated how much cleaner his shop is than it used to be suggesting particulate emissions were lower than a few years ago.

In conclusion, another disappointing and hysterical programme on air pollution rather than a truly balanced study of the issues.

Roger Lawson

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Do Low Levels of Air Pollution Damage Your Heart?

Following the publication of a scientific paper analysing heart condition and the impact of air pollution, the national media immediately jumped to headlines such as “Low Levels of Air Pollution Linked to Changes in the Heart” as published by the BBC. Stories were typically illustrated with pictures of traffic jams, car exhaust and visible London air pollution. Calls to reduce legal maximum air pollution figures were added.

What does this scientific paper actually show? You can read it here: https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.118.034856 . It’s a paper by Nay Aung et al. But here are some comments on it:

  1. The paper was published in the journal “Circulation”, a small distribution specialist scientific journal, It is based on information from the UK Biobank which contains medical information on thousands of volunteers who have in this case had heart scans.
  2. The study correlated the information from 3,920 individuals to air pollution data (specifically NO2 and PM2.5) where they lived from 2005-2010.
  3. The study concluded that after adjusting for numerous other factors such as demographics (age, sex, ethnicity), anthropometrics (height, body mass), socioeconomic factors (income, employment, educational status), cardiac risk factors and physical activity there was a positive correlation between minor changes to left ventricle (LV) mass and other heart changes to air pollution levels where the volunteers were resident.
  4. Such changes to a heart are known to precede heart disease.
  5. The paper’s authors therefore concluded that “our findings add to the growing evidence of the damaging effects of ambient air pollution even in the setting of relatively low exposure levels”.

Are their conclusions justified beyond any doubt, and in particular are the popular media’s headlines justified? My conclusion is no. For example, like any epidemiological study it only provides a possible statistical association, not a direct cause. As Prof Kevin McConway commented on this paper (as reported by the BBC): “Heart disease is affected by a wide range of factors – smoking, drinking alcohol, diet, exercise, social position, and more. Suppose that people whose heart health is worse because of some of these factors are also more likely to live in places where air pollution is high. That could show up as a correlation between air pollution and heart disease, even if the pollution itself is having no direct effect on the heart”.

Another possible issue is that air pollution inside houses is known to often be many times worse than that in the most polluted streets. That pollution comes from cooking, new paint, fabrics, carpets, smoking by other residents, animal hair, etc. Lack of ventilation in houses and apartments can increase levels substantially so people who live close to noisy roads who never open their windows as a result may be particularly affected.

The report is open to attack on the detail of their statistical methods, and they also note that other similar studies did not provide the same evidence in all cases. In summary the overall evidence is quite weak. Neither does the report confirm that the minor changes noted to heart mass lead in this case to significant heart disease.

Their reference to “low exposure levels” may also be misleading because air pollution levels were not measured outside the volunteers’ houses or where they work. In addition the fact that the people studied were volunteers, i.e. were self-selected rather than being a randomised sample, could have biased the outcome even though lots of adjustments were made for possible confounding factors.

All the report really suggests is that more study should be undertaken of a possible effect. The conclusion drawn by some commentators that air pollution legal limits need to be reduced further is not substantiated by this report.

In the meantime, readers are advised not to live within a few metres of a busy road because it may be bad for your health. But that’s no surprise is it? Just living in a noisy environment is known to be very damaging to your health. High noise levels are correlated with cardiovascular disease according to the World Health Organisation. It seems it increases stress levels which has a negative impact on health.

What the Aung report does not do is justify even more aggressive attempts to reduce air pollution in cities such as London, where NOX and particulates are already falling after the mistaken support of more diesel vehicles by the Government. Road vehicles will soon no longer be a major contributor to air pollution in cities so more scaremongering of this ilk is not required.

The answer to the question posed in the headline of this article (“Do Low Levels of Air Pollution Damage Your Heart”) is simply that it is “Not proven”.

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Who Is Responsible for Excessive Urban Vehicle Emissions?

Is it the vehicle manufacturers, or people buying cars and vans without thinking? The ABD has recently issued a press release on this topic which lays the blame firmly on Government. See http://www.abd.org.uk/government-entirely-responsible-for-urban-vehicle-emissions-issues/ . In London that means the Mayor of London supported by TfL, plus the local London boroughs.

In summary vehicle emissions have improved enormously in the last few years, but those improvements have been defeated by unwise policies for tackling traffic congestion. Traffic speeds have slowed, which increases pollution. The ABD suggests in our press release how pollution could be tackled with more sensible policies.

Roger Lawson

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Press Release: TfL Forced to Disclose ULEZ Costs

The Alliance of British Drivers (ABD) has issued the following press release:

Back in April 2017 the ABD responded to a public consultation on the proposed extension of the ULEZ. However we criticised the lack of information on the cost/benefit of the scheme, indeed of any information on costs and likely revenues at all, which made making an informed response to the consultation difficult.

As Transport for London (TfL) refused to provide such information when requested we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request. TfL refused the request on the grounds of “commercial confidentiality” so we asked for a review and subsequently appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

They have upheld our complaint and so we should get the requested information after all (unless they appeal to the First Tier Tribunal). But is it not disgraceful that TfL can obstruct and delay this legitimate need for such information?

TfL claimed it was commercially sensitive because they were already talking to possible suppliers but the ICO judged that there was insufficient evidence that such disclosure would result in specific harm to TfL that would justify refusal.

In our view the ULEZ proposals are out of proportion to the benefit to be obtained. The fact that TfL are apparently reluctant to disclose the financial budgets for this scheme suggests to us that it is more about tax raising than simply tackling the air pollution health issue.

In addition the costs of the scheme may be so high that even with the additional taxes raised from vehicle users, it may be unaffordable. BUT WE DON’T KNOW BECAUSE TFL REFUSED TO TELL US.

It is unfortunately typical of late for the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to issue public consultations in his name that are biased polemics of the benefits of his proposals while not disclosing the facts. Democracy is undermined when a public authority acts in this way.

It is further undermined when TfL refuse to disclose information and by doing so delay its release past the consultation due date when they know any appeal process will take many months.

There is great public concern about the costs imposed on London residents by the ULEZ proposals, often on the poorest residents. It needs to be clear that the benefits are justified by the costs and that more cost effective solutions to tackle London’s poor air quality cannot be found.

More information will be published when we get the requested data; in the meantime you can read the ICO’s decision notice here: http://www.freedomfordrivers.org/ICO-Decision-ULEZ-Request.pdf

More Information

The ULEZ proposals are part of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy which the ABD is vigorously campaigning against – see this web page for more information: http://www.freedomfordrivers.org/against-mts.htm

There is also an attack on vehicle usage and parking provision in the “London Plan” which the ABD is also opposing on the grounds of irrationally and the use of emotive phrases such as “car dependency” to describe people’s rational choice of transport mode. See the above web page for our recent submission to the public consultation on the London Plan.

For more information on this issue, contact Roger Lawson on 020-8295-0378.

Air Pollution and Asthma

The Financial Times reported this morning (23/12/2017) that the Government is going to launch a consultation on tighter restrictions on wood burning stoves. Particulates (e.g. PM2.5) as well as NOX emissions are seen as one of the reasons to reduce diesel vehicle usage but according to the FT, forty percent of particulate emissions in the UK come from burning wood and coal in homes – more than double that from diesel cars. Sadiq Khan in London is particularly concerned about the growth in the numbers of wood-burning stoves. For some reason they don’t seem to be covered by the Clean Air Acts that stopped the burning of coal in most UK cities.

Comment: it would certainly seem wise to tackle this problem. One of my local pubs recently installed such a fire in their restaurant. It may feel good to have a roaring wood fire near you over dinner, but it’s not good for air pollution or public health.

Meanwhile Private Eye published this report following the revelation that a number of top racing cyclists are taking medication: “The NHS is urging parents to look for signs of asthma in their children, which could include heavy wheezing, shortness of breath and winning the Tour de France. Another tell-tale sign your child could be asthmatic is that they’ve just signed to ride with Team Sky”.

It seems “exercised induced asthma” (EIA) is now a well-known condition so you need to add that to the list of causes of asthma that I gave in a previous blog post (see: https://abdlondon.wordpress.com/2017/11/18/does-air-pollution-in-london-cause-asthma/ ).

Roger Lawson

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Panicking Londoners: Consultation on ULEZ Extension

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has announced today a consultation on the extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to within the North/South Circular in 2021. Any vehicle that does not meet the required emission standard will be required to pay a charge of £12.50 for cars/vans in addition to any central London Congestion Charge that might also apply. Cars and vans will need to meet the Euro 6 standard for diesels and Euro 4 standard for petrol vehicles.

In addition motorcycles will be included in the above and the ULEZ tighter emission standards will apply to the whole of London from October 2020 for heavy vehicles (buses, coaches, lorries and other specialist vehicles).

The announcement was launched with the following claims from Alex Williams of Transport for London: “Right now, air pollution in London is a public health crisis…….filthy air contributes to thousands of early deaths each year in London, and impacts our health over the course of our lives, leading to decreased lung function in our children, and greater risk of dementia and stroke when we get older.

This is scaremongering of the worst kind. The claim relating to deaths is an exaggeration and the claims about dementia and stroke are disputed by some authorities. In any case these are often based on epidemiological studies and results from such research may simply reflect the fact that those who live in poor inner-city neighbourhoods lead unhealthy life styles.

Even the suggested reduction in air pollution from these new taxes are only expected to have any impact in the next few years and by 2030 the benefit will have disappeared anyway. So very high short- term costs are being imposed on many vehicle owners as they will need to change their cars/vans unnecessarily.

I commented about claims that air pollution is causing an epidemic of asthma in a previous blog post here: https://abdlondon.wordpress.com/2017/11/18/does-air-pollution-in-london-cause-asthma/ . It’s basically nonsense.

London’s air, and the vehicles which drive in London, have been getting cleaner and that will rapidly progress as vehicles are replaced without this expensive scheme (of which the Mayor is refusing to disclose the costs). Where is the cost/benefit justification? There is none.

The Mayor claims that London’s air is “lethal” but that is simply not true. Sadiq Khan is now not just scaring children and dragging them into his politicking, but now is attempting to disconcert the elderly who might be worried about the diseases of age. It’s simply unprincipled. To say there is a “public health crisis” is just wrong. Londoners are living longer and there is no evidence that air pollution is shortening the lives of Londoners to any measurable extent.

Make sure you go here to respond to the public consultation: https://consultations.tfl.gov.uk/environment/air-quality-consultation-phase-3b/?cid=airquality-consultation

Roger Lawson

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