Less Pollution? Yes please!

As the local co-ordinator of Sheffield FoE, Lindy has been busy over the past few weeks responding to questions about the new Clean Air Zone in Sheffield, with contributions on Look North, BBC Radio Sheffield and also the article below which was published in the Sheffield Telegraph on Thursday 23rd February. 

High levels of air pollution, both nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, seriously impact health leading to chronic long-term  illness, being significantly implicated in 1 in 20 deaths in Sheffield and harming the developing lungs and brains of babies and children. High levels of nitrogen also adversely impact nature, reducing the quality, quantity and diversity of wildlife and plants and in addition to all that of course the CO2 generated by vehicles contributes hugely to climate change. 

Establishing a Clean Air Zone is the first significant action that Sheffield Council has taken to improve the high levels of air pollution across the city and we welcome the principle as an important first step. Nationally, Friends of the Earth have been highlighting the dangers of air pollution and suggesting strategies to address these for many years and as a local group we have also often tackled our council on the issues, including when the area outside the railway station was identified as the location of the second highest concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the country. 

There are specific CAZ related issues to iron out of course, and much more needs to be done to improve air quality, most significantly a vastly improved local public transport network which uses electric buses to transport local people quickly, easily and efficiently around South Yorkshire, and we look forward to the next steps. 

Sheffield Telegraph article below: 

Less Pollution? Yes please!

As Sheffield launches its Clean Air Zone, this seems a good moment to reflect on pollution issues.

Everyone agrees that we want clean land, clean water and clean air so we can live longer, more healthy lives and don’t damage the environment we all depend on. But what exactly are the problems and what can be done about them? 

Let’s start with water, where we have probably made the greatest progress over the past 50 years even though in many areas we still have huge, and at times worsening,  problems with sewage effluent and agricultural chemical run off.  

A healthy environment relies on clean water. We want to see our rivers and streams clear and free flowing. Historically, the industrial revolution resulted in massive damage to the ecosystems of our rivers. Locally, there are stories of the Don being so polluted it was photographed on fire back in the 1970s and was full of detergents that were churned up into giant foam balls.

The owners of the polluting factories and businesses didn’t want to have to pay for the clean up but public pressure made it happen. Legislation slowly brought waterways pollution under control, helped by dogged campaigners monitoring discharges into the rivers and reporting these.   And now, from having one of the dirtiest rivers in Europe, we may soon have salmon back in the Don in Sheffield City Centre. It’s a start. 

Next up: land. For most of us, clean land means free of litter -  so hats off to the Sheffield Litterpicking community who do sterling work all year round to make the city look tidier. But much of the litter is single-use plastic which breaks down to release microplastics into the environment. Whether these are washed into our water courses or sink into our soils, they damage biodiversity and get into the food chain. We definitely need less of that.

And finally to clean air. Air pollution was indeed much worse in the past.  The ‘Great Smog’ in London in 1952 led to the deaths of around 12,000 people. Similar events happened across the country, including here in Sheffield.  The danger was created by the burning of coal and industrial activities. Fewer vehicles on the roads then meant they were not the key factor.

The Government initially resisted pressure to act, and was keen to downplay the scale of the problem due to economic pressures. Businesses objected, because they didn't want to change their ways of working. Eventually though public pressure and the mounting cost of treating the poor health caused by air pollution, led to the Clean Air Act of 1956 which has been updated several times. Overall air pollution has improved as a result but not enough in most city centres. 

Sadly, it’s worst on warm, dry, still days and it continues to be the biggest environmental risk to human health as well as a source of harm to the natural environment. So its obviously right that we should make every effort to address. The changes are being seen as unnecessary by some but perhaps this is because we don’t notice ‘dirty air’ in quite the same way as we notice sludge filled rivers or litter-strewn verges. 

Many people will notice when they get a lungful of diesel fumes from an old lorry as they are waiting to cross a road. Some people will notice that their asthma is worse after time spent in the city centre. But far fewer people recognise that their long-term heart disease, their friend’s repeated bronchitis or their uncle’s stroke are also often linked to poor quality air.

In Sheffield it is estimated that air pollution still contributes to around 500 deaths a year and many more people are living with long-term conditions worsened or caused by air pollution. For the sake of these people and their families, we should all want the situation to improve anyway, but this level of poor health also puts a huge, unnecessary, additional burden on the NHS.

If we know about these issues and we know the causes, why wouldn’t we want to take steps to reduce the problem? 

A Clean Air Zone is just one mechanism for addressing this, albeit the government’s preferred option.  In Sheffield the most polluting vehicles which make up only about 7% of total traffic, create 35% of the city’s NO2 emissions and older vehicles are the worst. Fewer of these on our roads will benefit not just the city centre but everywhere. A successful CAZ would quite quickly collect no charges at all.

People need to be supported in making changes of course; it’s not enough to know that you are protecting others’ health. More work needs to be done about this, with most of the government’s £23m available for grants and loans to owners,  but not at the expense of the principle of cleaner air everywhere.  

There are other steps I’d love to see which would reduce air pollution - more  walking and cycling routes and better and cleaner public transport would be great - but we must start somewhere. All our lives would improve if we were free to breathe clean air. 

Less pollution? Yes, please.