Killing Me Softly

Southampton’s air pollution and our health

Killing Me Softly – a beautiful song, what’s it got to do with air pollution? It illustrates how most of us don’t understand the growing toll of air pollution on our health. Toxic air used to just be associated with respiratory problems such as asthma and lung cancer, but we now know it affects every organ in the body. Heart disease, dementia, strokes and diabetes are just some of its devastating impacts on our health.

Air pollution sounds almost as bad as smoking! It’s very similar. The annual death toll from puffing on tobacco in the UK is 78,000. In 2015, 64,000 deaths in the UK were attributed to toxic air, with lives cut short on average by 1.5 years. In Southampton, it was estimated that 110 people died prematurely due to the effects of fine particle pollution. That was back in 2010. Now the number of deaths is thought to be 168 – an increase of 50% in less than a decade. And this number doesn’t even take into account the additional impact of other airborne pollutants.

That sounds serious, but something to worry about when I get older? A healthy adult takes around 20,000 thousand breaths a day. Each time we inhale dirty air, we’re putting our health at risk. Babies & young children are even more vulnerable as they can breathe in and out up to 60,000 times a day, increasing the number of pollutants drawn into their bodies.

So air pollution has a greater effect on children? Yes it does. Just like miners who used to carry canaries into the tunnels with them to warn of dangerous gases, children are sadly becoming our roadside canaries. High levels of air pollution have been found to stunt lung growth, affect the developing brain and trigger asthma attacks. This was fatal for Ella Kissi-Debrah, a 9-year old girl living in South London, who died after a severe asthma attack in 2013. Her 27 hospital visits coincided with spikes in dirty air.

But we don’t have smog in Southampton – our air quality can’t be that bad? The most lethal elements of air pollution are tiny particles smaller than the width of human hair (referred to as PM10 and PM2.5). This ‘invisible dust’ gets carried around the body by the bloodstream, going deep into the brain and affecting individual cells. In cities the biggest contributor to PM2.5 concentrations is actually domestic wood & coal burning.

What about all the cars, lorries and ships? Indeed. 50,000 vehicles enter and leave Southampton each day; we have a large port catering both to cruise and cargo ships, with major plans to expand; and Southampton Airport is keen to do the same. This growth will come at a huge cost to the health & wellbeing of residents as transport is already a huge source of air pollution, producing both particulate matter and Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2).

Do you mean laughing gas? No, that’s nitrous oxide. We’re talking about the toxic gas which has exceeded legal levels in Southampton and was the focus of the 2018 Clean Air Zone consultation in the city. Sadly, despite massive public support for this type of clean air measure, we currently have no way of significantly restricting traffic flows into the city.

Apart from a nationwide lockdown perhaps? Yes, we certainly had safer streets and clear, blue skies for a while there. In some parts of the city air quality was better than ‘business as usual’, but in others it was worse. At first glance this seems strange, but lockdown coincided with something called the ‘Spring Smog’. For an analysis of local air quality data before & during lockdown click here.

Covid-19 and air pollution both cause respiratory problems. Is there a link? Well spotted. Long-term exposure to air pollution has been found to increase the severity of Covid-19, with higher death tolls from the virus being found in more polluted areas (a 7% increase for every 1 ug/m3 increase in PM2.5). Researchers are also looking into whether the virus can attach itself to fine particle pollution and be widely dispersed. Yet more reasons to tackle air pollution to protect public health.

Are people living in low-pollution areas living happier, healthier lives? Actually, yes. Utrecht in the Netherlands is a prime example, as discovered by Southampton residents when they went on a study tour to the city. Here in the UK, a study of the health benefits of the low-traffic neighbourhood in Waltham Forest, London, found that children’s life expectancy has increased by 6 weeks. And if we reduce air pollution by one fifth in Southampton, each year there would be 150 fewer children with low lung function.

OK, sign me up. What do I need to do? Fantastic! Thanks for being a part of our clean air community. Take a look here for actions you can take to help create healthier, more liveable neighbourhoods for us all.

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