Modelling suggests there are over 780 schools in areas where air pollution is so high it is illegal. Some 50,000 people die early because of air pollution in the UK each year. Pollution cost the country an estimated £20bn in 2016, due to the loss of people from the economy, and extra health costs.
In the UK, 16 air-quality zones including London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham and Leeds exceed the legal limit. The government is being sued by campaigners as a result. More data is arriving all the time about the harm that air pollution is doing. Experts say it is affecting children’s lung development and all of our cognition.
People who spend a lot of time on the street – either through circumstances or the way they make their living, including your Big Issue vendors – are being put at even more of a disadvantage in terms of their health and potentially in the way their brains work. Exposure to air pollution could be a significant marker of inequality.
One of the most powerful moments making our film [Fighting for Air] was demonstrating the effects of polluted air. First I wore a chemical warfare suit so I was breathing totally purified air. Then we measured my blood pressure, pulse, and how well I was thinking.
We repeated the tests after I exposed myself to pollution. I was measurably more stupid, my cognition worked less well, my blood pressure and heart rate were raised and my blood was thicker. It is a terrible combination, which will predispose you to heart disease, strokes, fatal illnesses.
We also went into the school in Kings Heath and got the kids to cough up sputum. We put everything under a microscope. You could see little particles of carbon coated with toxic molecules – products of diesel oil breaking down into carcinogenic compounds, which get deep into the lungs and even cross the blood-brain barrier. The carbon is potentially delivering toxic nano-particles to our brains.