Samantha Heath: Questioning our air quality

SERA Executive Member Samantha Heath outlines how we can tackle the air quality crisis.

We know quite a bit about air quality in terms of facts and figures. We know how bad it is in London, for instance, and how it’s doing us harm. We know where it comes from – in terms of traffic, dirty diesel vans, freight and cars. The impact of poor air quality averages out to a “loss of life expectancy from birth of approximately six months” for every UK resident.

2013 is the ’Year of Air’.  Many people are calling for a public campaign; what do we want people to do with their awareness?

In 2004 I felt like a Cheshire Cat, having convinced Ken Livingstone to put Low Emission Zones into the Labour Manifesto.  I didn’t have many supporters at the time, but I knew that it was the only “game changer” in town at the time.

The introduction of LEZs caused a small furore amongst charity groups who were not able to afford to improve their vehicles to the then-required Euro iii compliance.

We know quite a few horifying stuff about air quality, the statistics should really speak for themselves:

  • There was “an effect on mortality in 2008 equivalent to nearly 29,000 deaths in the UK at typical ages.” In other words, 29,000 deaths occurred that year that were attributable to man-made particulate pollution.
  • The costs to the UK of 2008 PM2.5 levels is in the range of £8–17 billion per year (with a central estimate of £15 billion).
  • About 320,000 London children go to schools within 150m of roads that carry over 10,000 vehicles a day.
  • Recent medical studies have concluded that such roads could be responsible for some 15-30 per cent of all new cases of asthma in children,
  • 80% of PM10s come from vehicles
  • Poorer communities tend to live on the busiest and most polluted streets
  • And yet still nearly a third of children in London travel to school by car, over 40%  in the UK ……

We have known for quite sometime that the traditional public awareness or even policy changes aren’t enough to improve air quality, we now know that we need an extra something before we can change our love affair with cars and long supply chains that require our goods to travel miles around the world before they get to us.   So whilst our air quality policy must include public engagement: awareness and behaviour change along with important changes to our transport infrastructure, some policy changes that we need to improve air quality will require a deeper rethink that will ask us to change how we buy our goods and services.

I am now working with The Healthy Air Campaign; a coalition of health, transport and environmental organisations who are working to tackle the public health crisis caused by air pollution. We aim to encourage behaviour that helps reduce air pollution and exposure to it and persuade the government to take action so the UK complies fully with air quality law.

Things that we are asking for specifically are:


  • Tackle diesel exhaust
    •  Ban unfiltered diesel vehicles from Britain’s towns and cities through a national network of low emission zones
    • Support the retrofitting or upgrade of the most polluting vehicles such as buses and taxis
  • Work to ensure that the 2013 Year of Air leads to further tightening of legal protection against the dangers of air pollution
  • Increase public understanding through core health (and other) channels
    • Support NICE to develop guidance on air pollution
    • Improved system to warn vulnerable populations of high pollution events
    • Better costing of impacts which reflect, for example, NHS costs


  • Support a national framework of low emission zones
  • Health and Wellbeing Boards to:
    •  Include air quality data in Joint Strategic Needs Assessments;
    • Prioritise air quality indicator in Health and Wellbeing Strategies; and
    • Influence key areas of responsibility such as transport and planning.
  • Local awareness raising of health impacts and how to reduce personal exposure
  • Implementation of NICE guidance on walking and cycling

Samantha Heath is a member of SERA’s Executive. She tweets at @SamanthaLHeath

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