London is trying to make itself less toxic to kids

Sunny day, feeling A-ok (not).
Sunny day, feeling A-ok (not).
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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On Tuesday (Jan. 15), London mayor Sadiq Khan announced new measures to improve London’s air-quality monitoring network. The goal is to help identify where pollution is worst, what the sources of it are, and to develop targeted ways to reduce it.

The network will put 100 new fixed sensor pods in pollution hotspots and places where kids congregate, such as schools and nurseries. Sensors affixed to two Google view street cars will measure pollution about every 30 meters (98 feet), documenting pollution hotspots in real time for a year where fixed sensors cannot.

Khan launched the initiative, Breathe London, at a school in London where 30% of the pupils have asthma.”The increase in asthma [in our pupils] has been dramatic,” the school head Andrew May told the BBC. “[The parents] are increasingly angry and want to do more [to tackle pollution].”

Children are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of air pollution for two reasons: they are small, so they are closer to its most concentrated sources, including exhaust from cars, and because their developing organs and nervous system are more vulnerable to long-term damage compared to those of adults.

Data generated by the new network—which builds on an existing network of 100 other fixed sensors—will be available to citizens to view on an interactive online map on the Breathe London website. Londoners can now know just how bad the air is every day before they leave the house so they can avoid hotspots or take precautions if they already have breathing problems.

Evidence is growing that exposure to air pollution is bad for all of us. It can stunt lung development; precipitate and exacerbate asthma; and increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Of course, we’ve known about the dangers of air pollution for a long time, particularly in London. In December 1952, the great smog killed 4,000 Londoners and left tens of thousands with chronic lung disease after an anticyclone pushed trapped coal fumes back in the air, forcing city dwellers to inhale a toxic mix of smoke and chemicals (The Crown dramatizes this very well).

In response, the British government passed air quality laws in 1956, but the problem hasn’t gone away. On Jan. 30 last year, air pollution in London reached the legal limit for the whole of 2018. It was later than prior years, but still only one month in. And the damaging air doesn’t seem to be limited the outdoors; last year, a report (pdf) by Cambridge University and University College London showed that children in London schools were being exposed to higher levels of damaging air pollution inside the classroom than outside.

But the impacts of air pollution are felt in cities far beyond London; late last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report saying that 93% of the world’s young people–1.8 billion children–are breathing toxic air, damaging their intelligence and leading to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.

“Air pollution is stunting our children’s brains, affecting their health in more ways than we suspected,” Maria Neira, WHO director of public health and the environment, told the Guardian in October.

In a separate op-ed in the Guardian, Tedros Adhanom, director general of the WHO, called air pollution “the new tobacco,” and a “silent public health emergency, killing 7 million people every year and damaging the health of many, many more.”

The problem is global. Pollution in New Delhi in 2018 was so high the city couldn’t measure it. According to an article by Rob Hughes, a senior fellow at the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, non-smokers in New Delhi, many only in their 30s, now make up half of the lung cancer patients in the city.

Various cities are trying to innovate around monitoring air quality, Apolitical says. Citizens in Mexico City can access real-time air quality data wherever they live. And in London, the nonprofit Clean Air in London project (separate from Khan’s Breathe London) is trying to recruit citizens to carry low-cost sensors around the city, providing detail fixed sensors can’t, effectively crowdsourcing pollution monitoring. Armed with the data those monitoring systems provide, citizens particularly at risk will know what parts of the city to avoid, and policy makers will know where to concentrate efforts to reduce air pollution.