What is air pollution?

Any substance concentrated enough in our air to have harmful effects could qualify as air pollution. There are many harmful gases - sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, etc. - but in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, concern is focussed mainly on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM), particles so small that they act effectively as a gas. Although there are many sources, including construction, industrial activity and heating, the main source of both NO2 and PM is ground-based transport.

Why are we concerned about air pollution?

Air pollution is a serious health hazard:

  • NO2 inflames the lungs, stunting their growth and increasing the risk of respiratory diseases such as asthma and lung cancer.
  • PM10, referring to particles less than 10 microns (millionths of a metre) in diameter, can accumulate in the respiratory system and can result in a number of health effects ranging from coughing and wheezing to asthma attacks, bronchitis, heart attacks and strokes.
  • PM2.5, particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter, can enter the cardiovascular system, with a range of adverse health impacts.

Air pollution has been ranked 2nd only to smoking as a cause of premature deaths. New research in London estimates nearly 9,500 people die early each year due to long-term exposure to air pollution, more than twice as many as previously thought. Across the UK, the government believes more than 50,000 people a year die prematurely as a result of air pollution. Children, the elderly, and people with existing respiratory illnesses suffer disproportionately. Shockingly, we now know that 75 out of 126 schools in Tower Hamlets are within 150m of illegally toxic air, including the most polluted school in London - the Courtald Institute of Art. You can find out more here. Air pollution is a huge social inequality issue, with the poorest areas often suffering the worst air quality. Several areas of Tower Hamlets exceed EU limits of NO2 by more than double.

In addition, there is a contribution to climate change - for example, black carbon, a kind of particulate matter emitted especially from diesel vehicles, absorbs solar radiation and so has a warming effect. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) believes tackling air pollution could help cut global average temperatures by 0.5ºC, which could be crucial in the fight to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.

And there are economic effects - the World Health Organisation estimates the UK suffers £54 billion in costs associated with air pollution annually.

What are we doing?

Locally, we've been engaging with Tower Hamlets' new Local Plan - you can see our response here. There will be further consultation on the Local Plan in Summer 2017 - look out for how you can get involved nearer the time.

We're also taking action to oppose the Silvertown tunnel - a new river crossing near the Blackwall tunnel. We recognise the series issues that congestion at the Blackwall tunnel is causing to the health of people living near to it. But we're concerned that the assumptions underlying the proposed new Silvertown tunnel are not sound, and that it will not positively benefit people in Tower Hamlets and other affected boroughs.

In late 2016 we asked people to write to the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, if they shared our concerns, which people did. We also got some media coverage in East End Citizen. We also took an active role in the planning process - if you would like to see our latest Written Representation published on the National Infrastructure Planning website here. You can see the main overview page for more information about the planning process.

Nationally, Friends of the Earth is preparing a campaign to try and reduce the devastating impact of air pollution. We’re working with staff from the head office, with Muslim Aid, and with schools in Whitechapel, on a pilot for the national campaign, aimed at raising awareness, engaging local communities, and tackling environmental inequality and climate change. If you'd like to know more, please contact us!