‘Watching your child struggling to breathe is horrible’: The lives changed by Britain’s poisonous air

Failure to hit legal nitrogen dioxide limits is putting families and vulnerable people at serious risk

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 09 September 2020 16:35 BST
Putney High Street, west London, is a pollution hotspot
Putney High Street, west London, is a pollution hotspot (Elizabeth Dalziel/Greenpeace)

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Louise Thomas

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Families, campaigners and those worst affected by low air quality have reacted angrily to new figures from Labour which show as many as 33 million people are living in areas where toxic nitrogen dioxide exceeded legal limits in 2019.

Legal limits set by the EU were broken in 142 local authorities in England, areas which are home to 7 million children and 5.5 million people over 65, the latter of which are also at higher risk from Covid-19, a respiratory disease in which health outcomes have been linked to air quality.

As lockdown restrictions have largely lifted, concern is growing that air quality which had improved at the height of the pandemic is rapidly returning to the illegal levels seen in areas across the country last year.

“I’m incredibly concerned there’s going to be a focus on the economy and the green agenda is being left far behind,” says Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, a World Health Organisation clean air advocate, whose nine-year-old daughter Ella’s death from asthma became the first in the UK to be directly linked to air pollution.

“A lot more needs to be done. If up to 60 per cent of the country are breathing in illegal air pollution, that in itself is a public health emergency. It’s incredibly worrying.”

The family lives 25 metres from London’s South Circular Road, which has notoriously high levels of pollution, and Ella suffered three years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital for asthma attacks.

Rosamund tells The Independent the figures for 2019 are no surprise.

She says: “I’m not at all surprised by these figures. Diesel being phased out in 2030 is a nonsense. It needs to be phased out sooner.

“The possible impact for children, whose lungs are underdeveloped is they could end up having asthma, which is a life-long condition. Air pollution has been linked to every illness you can possibly think of.

“When you have somebody who is ill, you don’t have as much time as you think. Every single day they are breathing illegal air makes them worse, you see. People always think you have time.  

“It is because air pollution is invisible – that is why I think people in authority get away with acting so slowly. Can you imagine if our water was that filthy? People would be out marching in the streets. It is way too slow.”

The new figures reveal it is not just London which has a severe air pollution problem.

Areas including parts of Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Norwich, Birmingham and Nottingham have all recorded illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide.

Dave Lawson, a sports coach and volunteer for the British Lung Foundation, was diagnosed with bronchiectasis aged three and doctors gave him a life expectancy of around 10 years.

Now 37 years old, he lives near Manchester and says the pollution is a near constant struggle.  

“Bronchiectasis is an enlarging of the airways in my lungs, which causes more phlegm to build up and means I’m more susceptible to infection, it’s also killed off a good proportion of my lungs so now I have about 70 per cent capacity. There’s no cure for bronchiectasis – once it happens, that’s it – it’s just how much damage it does.  

“It was a result of getting pneumonia when I was about three years old. So in a strange way I’ve never really known life without it.”

He says it has been “quite alarming” to see the difference between the air quality at the height of lockdown earlier this year, and the rapid return of polluted air as restrictions have been lifted.

In recent years he says he has found levels of pollution in Manchester “unbearable”, and has regularly got to the point where he has to avoid going into the city centre. 

“It’s sad when you see parents with young children walking past you and their inhaling it as well and you’re thinking ‘there goes the next generation if we don’t do something about this’. It really has a knock on effect when you look at the bigger picture.

“It’s been quite alarming how the air quality in Manchester has deteriorated since I was an adolescent in the mid-to-late-Nineties to what it’s like now.

“It feels so oppressive now. It’s a lot more difficult to breathe in the city centre these days. Being able to go by foot from one side of the city centre to the other is a big ask.”  

On a bad day the impacts of poor air for Lawson are serious. “Shortness of breath, very difficult to breathe, which leads to anxiety symptoms, panic attacks, because you’re just thinking ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t do this, I can’t function. What can I do? I’m exposed in this big city centre and I’m not safe’.  

“It’s a very restricting feeling and sensation, both physically and mentally.”  

He says greater investment in public transport was essential “in order to discourage people from using their cars to travel into urban areas unless they absolutely have to”.  

“You’ve basically got a chauffeur service on the tram, the train or the bus. It’s there – why not use it?”

The national push to promote active travel during the coronavirus pandemic has been beneficial to people living in areas where new traffic-calming measures have been introduced, and have been particularly noticeable in some communities.

Laura from Brixton told The Independent her two year old son has been admitted to hospital three times since he was born because of severe breathing issues.  

“It’s a lot in quite a short space of time,” she says.

“Walking along the road on the way to nursery he’s right at the height of an exhaust. I didn’t really think about it that much until I had a child. But he’s breathing it all in. So these figures are really alarming.

“I do own a car, but we are trying to cycle and walk more because we don’t want to contribute towards making the situation worse.”

Her son was first admitted to hospital in July 2019, and he spent a week there “struggling to breathe, then we were back again in October in an ambulance. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

“Watching your child struggling to breathe is not great. It’s horrible. So I became very conscious of the air while we were walking in the street and want it to be as good as possible. ” 

Laura says she doesn’t want toxic air to be a reason not to live in the capital.  

“We love London. It’s a brilliant place to live and therefore we want things to be better.  

“We do now live in a low-traffic neighbourhood, in Lambeth. That is a really positive thing. I bought a bike. The volume of cars have gone down. You can hear people talking as they walk past, you can hear birds, you can talk to your neighbours, you feel safer. It’s made a massive difference and it’s only been going on since July.”  

While some areas have seen improvements, Katie Nield, a clean air lawyer for environmental law charity ClientEarth, says lack of progress on dealing with pollution by some authorities is “worrying”.

Some local authorities who have been tasked with putting in place measures to tackle air pollution have done U-turns and failed to put in place clean air zones, she says. This has happened in Leeds and Bristol, while in Manchester they have failed to finalise plans.  

She tells The Independent: “Despite evidence of the harms, we’re not seeing things getting better and the problem isn’t solved.

“It’s worrying to see local authorities U-turning on commitments to put in place clean air zones and we’re suffering from a pandemic which affects people’s lungs.

“Government evidence shows that clean air zones are the most effective way to quickly tackle illegal levels of air pollution, so we need those in place in towns and cities as soon as possible.”

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