Air pollution causes around seven million premature deaths every year. So why aren’t governments doing more to ensure a cleaner future?
To mark the publication of her first book, we speak with journalist and author Beth Gardiner about the sheer scale of health effects that come with breathing dirty air – an issue responsible for seven million premature deaths every year.
When Beth Gardiner first moved to London from New York, one of the first things she noticed was a certain thickness to the air. Whenever she found herself walking down a busy road, the lingering smell – of exhaust fumes – made her feel light-headed and dizzy. “It always kind of bothered me,” she remembers. “I’d get this bad taste in the back of my mouth.”
However, given that nobody else seemed to be talking about it (this was back in 2001, 2002), the American journalist decided she was probably just imagining things. It wasn’t until several years later, when looking into a story on air quality in the city ahead of the 2012 Olympics, that she realised just how serious the problem was. In fact, it took just five minutes of research for her jaw to hit the floor.
“The numbers keep changing – and this number didn’t exist at the time – but the latest estimate is that as many as 9,400 Londoners every year die prematurely from the effects of air pollution. It’s 40,000 people across the UK. And something like seven million globally.”
It was this moment that kick-started her relationship with the issue: one that’s taken her across the globe in a bid to draw attention to the “profound and far-reaching health effects” of breathing dirty air. In her first book Choked, that journey – from the UK to the US; India to Poland – is detailed in sobering fashion, following Gardiner as she meets with those impacted , the scientists exploring its effects, and the people battling for a healthier future.
To mark its publication in the UK – in conjunction with the launch of ULEZ: London’s new Ultra Low Emissions Zone – Huck spoke with Gardiner about why air pollution is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and what exactly we can do to fight back.
“When you stop and think about it, you wouldn’t be surprised if someone told you that smoking caused 30 different kinds of illness. It’s the same principal with air pollution,” she says. “The idea, that the air you breathe affects every part of your body – that shouldn’t be surprising.”
To put it plainly, what are the effects of living in a city with toxic air?
I spent some time recently with a mum from south London. Her daughter died in 2013 – she was nine years old – from a very, very severe form of asthma. The girl’s name was Ella Kissi-Debrah. The mum’s name is Rosamund. She’s been in the news because she’s campaigning to have Ella’s inquest reopened and trying to get air pollution put her on death certificate. So that’s one person, one child. I think we all know that one face is more powerful than even a really big number.
The best and most recent estimate is 9,400 Londoners every single year die from this. But very rarely do you have a case as severe or as clear as Ella Kissi-Debrah’s. You can’t usually say in the individual person’s case that air pollution is what caused them to get ill – if I have a heart attack tomorrow, is it because I never go to the gym and that I eat too much junk food? Or is it because I’ve lived in London and breathed this dirty air for 18 years? You’ll never know, in my one case.
What we do know is, at a population level when scientists look at a larger group of people – a city, county – they can say when air pollution goes up, the death rate – people who literally die young, prematurely – goes up. The number of heart attacks, the level of cancer, the rates of dementia. Every month, almost, with every new study, there are more and more illnesses that are related to dirty air. As an example: who would have ever thought that diabetes would be connected to air quality? There’s some pretty strong research on that now.
Why aren’t more people talking about it?
Well, I think there’s a greater awareness and understanding now. A lot of people outside the environmental community are now starting to understand that this impacts us very profoundly. Air pollution is a global problem. I think people are starting to understand it, partly because of the science that has emerged – these numbers are very powerful. But I still don’t think that we’ve really grasped the scale of it.
To put it in a more positive way, we don’t grasp that it doesn’t have to be this way. Cars don’t have to be this dirty. On the most immediate level, these diesel cars that are so polluting [are] emitting many multiples of what they’re legally allowed to be emitting. Really, you have to ask why that is; why the government hasn’t forced the companies to follow the law – even post-VW scandal – when everything has come to life about automakers cheating. The immediate answers are to do with better regulation and better enforcement of existing regulation.
It feels like a lot of the research when it comes to the health impact of air pollution was only conducted quite recently. Why?
It’s really been since the turn of the century. In the ’90s, it was pretty well understood that air pollution caused short-term spikes in illness. So if you had a high pollution day, scientists knew that there would be more heart attacks on that day. Or more emergency room admissions. But what has been more recent is the understanding that there are long-term effects as well.
There was a question for a while as to whether, if you live in a place where pollution is really high at a certain time, and then the air clears, are you now in the clear, or do you have long-term risks because of that as well? That long-term chronic illness question is what the recent research has focused on over the last 15 years or so. The answer, unfortunately, is yes. The more air pollution you’re exposed to, not only does your chance of having a heart attack today go up, but your long-term risk goes up as well. Not just heart attacks, but that’s just an example.
What have been the most eye-opening numbers for you?
It’s not even the numbers that are most jaw-dropping. I think what shocked me the most was the variety of health impacts that it has. I met an epidemiologist at UCLA who’s done research over many years – longitudinal studies involving large amounts of data.
This one particular study [made the link] that when women during pregnancy lived in a polluted part of LA, they had higher risk of premature birth, which can obviously have significant health consequences; low birth weight, pregnancy complications – like preeclampsia – which can be fatal. And, as time went on, those children had a higher risk of childhood leukaemia. There were three or four different types of cancer that she focused on, based on the pollution exposure that they had before birth.
And that’s just a small strand of research.
The range of cognitive impacts is a really shocking area. There was a study that was done a while ago in Mexico City – I mention it in the book – by a neuropathologist, back when Mexico City had really terrible air. She did autopsies on puppies and, when she examined their brains, she found that the ones who lived in Mexico City and breathed dirty air – when comparing them to puppies who’d been in clearer, more rural places – had the same physiological changes that doctors use to diagnose Alzheimer’s in humans. So not only was that correlated with exposure to air pollution, but at a very young age too. That was extremely shocking.
She subsequently did autopsies on young people who died in accidents and found that, if they had been exposed to high levels of air pollution – versus people in cleaner places – they had the early signals of Alzheimer’s. Not that they were getting Alzheimer’s, but they were potentially on that path. She also did some more studies with kids, where she did memory and IQ tests on children: she found that the ones who lived in polluted places, [if] they had a certain gene that predisposes them to Alzheimer’s, they were getting, like, 10 IQ points lower on tests than kids from clean air places. That blew me away.
You’ve been busy discussing London’s new Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ). What other kinds of things are being done?
Americans, we’re not used to thinking of ourselves as environmentally progressive. Usually we’re lagging behind Europe on just about everything, whether it’s recycling or carbon footprints. But what I learned researching this book, and what explains why it doesn’t smell of exhausts when I walk down the street in New York, that’s partly because Europeans like diesel and Americans don’t.
But also – and I’m talking pre-Trump, because things are changing now – the US has done a better job because we have a powerful Environmental Enforcement Agency called the EPA. One that Trump is eviscerating now. That, historically, has been pretty effective. That’s why VW in America has been forced to pay billions of dollars and some of their executives have been criminally charged in this diesel cheating scandal. The company was forced to do recalls and bring cars up to legal emissive standards. I know regulation enforcement is kinda boring, but it actually makes a big difference when it comes to air quality.
And in terms of the bigger picture?
We’re not going to get really healthy air until we move away from fossil fuels. If you look at China, they’re now putting a lot of money into electric cars and electric buses. Eight or ten years ago, China threw a lot of money at solar. Not just installing solar, but manufacturing solar panels. As a consequence, we’re all using cheap Chinese solar panels. The cost of solar has come down, like, 90 per cent or something. Now, they’re doing the same thing with electric cars and electric buses. It’s going to change the cost, it’s going to bring it down for the rest of us.
What can we as individuals do?
There are two different things, I guess. Number one, how can you protect yourself? Number two, what can you do to not be part of the problem? When it comes to protecting myself, one thing I do is try to walk on a quieter road. It actually makes a difference, because these nitrogen dioxide emissions from diesel, they diminish a lot – even if you’re 20 metres or something away from a road. So I try to walk, especially if I’m with my daughter, on a parallel road that’s quieter. Or, I’ll go out of my way to take a longer route that avoids busier roads.
The question of what we can do? I think a lot of this has to be solved at a government level. You and I don’t have the power to make VW follow the law, or to change our energy generation towards renewables. Part of it is having a voice politically, trying to make an argument for those things. Certainly, we can not drive diesel. And drive less. Cycling and walking is healthier for us, as well as less polluting for people around us.
Niall is Huck’s Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter.
Choked is out now in the UK on Granta.