Opinion

Xand van Tulleken: How you can join the fight for clean air

Want to make a positive new year change that has an immediate effect? Take steps to cut pollution and your community will feel the benefits overnight. Join TV medic Van Tulleken as he takes a deep breath and dives in

Air pollution

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.

Xand van Tulleken
TV medic Xand van Tulleken is bringing his battle for clean air to BBC Two

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.

New science means we are beginning to understand how diesel vehicles responsible for our lives being cut short. We knew lead pollution was bad. But when lead-free petrol was introduced, there were unexpected benefits like school attendance improving and violent crime plummeting. Now, we have rising levels of psychiatric disorders and classroom misbehaviour in children. I am not going to pin it all on air pollution, but I feel it would help to stop poisoning our kids.

The good news is that it is possible to get noticeable results in one day. You can literally change the levels of pollution in your neighbourhood overnight. Air pollution plummeted on a snow day recently, because people weren’t using cars. This problem could go away overnight if we make changes. So how about a New Year’s resolution that is fun and productive?

What can we do? It is about individuals and communities taking action. Transport is the big one. Every car off the road helps reduce pollution. More congestion leads to more stopping and starting – and when a vehicle pulls away from standing still there is a tenfold increase in pollution. Stopping and starting is the driver of pollution. So use the bus, train or underground. If you are coming from out of town, park on the edge of the city and do the last mile on public transport – it makes a huge difference. Lots of bus companies are moving to new electric buses in the next five years. We must use them.

The other way is a bit of local action. Organise a no-car day in your neighbourhood or a school bus if one doesn’t exist. Lobby to remove parking spaces on streets where they slow traffic. Lobby a local taxi firm to go electric. Who can you turn the screws on? Vote with your wallet.

All supermarkets have labelled lorries. If an Asda lorry piles down the street in rush hour, that is bonkers. Tweet them, hassle them, that lorry can come when traffic is lighter. It is amazing what you can achieve with a bit of pressure. Can you join or start an action group?

The big changes we saw were outside schools as more children walked or cycled and parents parked a bit further away. The school organised walking buses – where the kids walk in together, supervised, with careful road crossings. They are well looked after and enjoy burning off energy, chatting to mates.

And it is impossible to overstate the health benefits of walking. If someone invented a drug that did what walking does, they would be a billionaire overnight. Changing from 1,000 steps to 10,000 per day halves your chances of death in any given year. There are huge, huge benefits.

What will you do to help in 2018?

Dr Xand Van Tulleken: Fighting For Air is on January 10, BBC Two, 9pm

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