Citizen clean: Campaigners frustrated with the Government's failure to cut the amount of air pollution are uniting to tackle 'invisible killer'

 

A A A

If you live within earshot of the M1 in Sheffield, don't be alarmed if you spot a furtive character attaching small plastic tubes to lamp posts and garden fences across the neighbourhood. It's probably just Neil Parry, a clean air campaigner, and he's not up to anything sinister, unless you are a developer trying to build a new road or a supermarket planning a lorry-filled depot.

Rather, he's part of a small army of "citizen scientists" using a simple piece of kit called a diffusion tube to record and share the evidence of the toxic smog of dangerous nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas that covers much of the UK. Along with PM10 and PM2.5 particulates (tiny specks of oily and partially combusted matter), NO2 has been labelled "Britain's invisible killer" by clean air campaigners.

It's no secret that Britain has some of the worst air pollution in Europe. Last week, the European Commission moved closer to fining the Government £300m for failing to cut the levels of dangerous gases, while yesterday green campaigners condemned moves by ministers to clear the way for a Formula One race through London's already congested and polluted streets. Simon Birkett, another clean air campaigner, spoke for many, saying: "The last thing London needs is to be plastered in race track and battered by screeching noise and exhaust emissions."

Despite these headlines, though, campaigners such as Parry have "struggled to raise awareness" about the public health emergency that plagues sufferers of respiratory diseases and causes up to 30,000 premature deaths each year.

Cars release exhaust fumes in London (Getty Images) Cars release exhaust fumes in London (Getty Images)
In Sheffield, where Parry is part of the East End Quality of Life Initiative, they are depositing dozens of diffusion tubes across the city to monitor levels of air pollution. The tubes are just 7cm long and work like a roll of camera film, that, once exposed, measure average levels of NO2. Parry is quick to point out that the resulting data comes in very useful to "beat politicians around the head with".

"Air pollution is an invisible killer and it's a hidden public health crisis, so this data helps us call for things like low-emission zones and incentives for cleaner engines," says Parry, who counts blocking a supermarket development among his anti-pollution successes.

"This isn't about being anti-car, though," he adds, "it's about public health. Some people are quick to point the finger at interfering EU bureaucrats over emissions, but they rarely mention the damage pollution is causing to public health."

According to Birkett, who is the founder of Clean Air in London, the numbers of groups such as Parry's have "exploded" in recent years in a clean air revolution. And according to Maria Arnold, who is leading the Healthy Earth Campaign at ClientEarth, the environmental body challenging the Government in the courts, groups like this have the potential to "make the invisible visible" to politicians.

A polluted London skyline during morning rush hour (Getty Images) A polluted London skyline during morning rush hour (Getty Images)
The scale of the challenge that these campaigners face is enormous, though. In the UK, the majority of emissions of NO2s and PM10 and PM2.5 come from car exhausts so, unsurprisingly, the problem is greatest near busy main roads. Among the worst-affected roads, it emerged over the weekend, is Grosvenor Place, the road alongside Buckingham Palace. Thankfully for Her Majesty, many of her subjects are already taking action, including Jonathan Callaway from the Putney Society just across the Thames, where a big concern is the pollution on the congested high street.

Along with about a dozen volunteers, Callaway has already run a scheme to use diffusion tubes to record emissions of NO2 and call on the local council and mayor Boris Johnson to take action against the dirty soup of NO2 and particulate emissions in the leafy borough. A scheme to record particulate figures, using more complex recorders, is next.

"In London alone, there are 4,000 preventable deaths a year caused by air pollution," says Callaway. Working with the social enterprise Mapping for Change, the volunteers determined that Putney high street was regularly in breach of EU air pollution limits for NO2, and it was only then, says Callaway, that the project started to gain "traction" with local politicians.

Andrew Wood, from Network for Clean Air, which lobbies government, is full of praise for campaigners: "The pea souper may be a thing of the past, but air pollution today is more pervasive, and taking science like this out of the laboratory and opening up data is proving that.".

Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Mystery man: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in '‘Gone Girl'
films... by the director David Fincher
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
people
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

year 1/2 Teacher

£21500 - £32000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: "Where teaching is e...

English Teacher

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: If working in an out...

EYFS, KS1, KS2 Teachers

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to be part ...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?