Should You be Scared to Breathe?

Last week the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced that areas in the city have reached level 10 on the air pollution chart. This is the highest level possible and is the first time London has sat within this bracket, demanding Khan to issue the highest air pollution warning due to our “filthy air”.

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To give this reading some perspective, London has now overtaken the infamously smoggy Chinese capital, Beijing, on the Air Quality Index. Air pollution in London is now considered a serious health risk with it being said by the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Paediatrics and Child Health that such dirty air could be linked to the deaths of 40,000 people a year.

But how are we to take the news? Will we now see Londoners sporting surgical masks as their Beijing counterparts do? Is a switch to electric cars a possible solution? Should we go out at all?

The difficulty in answering such questions is that although London undoubtedly does have an air pollution problem, the information regarding the crisis is being grossly portrayed in the newspapers. What needs to be made clear (besides the smog) is that these extremely high levels of pollution are only in very concentrated areas of the city, mainly the busiest and most congested roads in the capital. Oxford Street and Tower Hill are prime examples. In more residential areas levels of air pollution tend to sit between 1 and 3 respectively, as shown on this map from London Air.

With this understanding in mind and a little common sense, Londoners should be told not to panic. Instead we have been inundated with claims of the tenuous links between the deaths of 40,000 people a year and our pollution problem. This number has been discredited by the BBC as a mere “statistical construct” that Government advisors contest with claims the actual number could be a sixth of the size. Still, however, Londoners have been urged to take certain precautions. The most incredible being to refrain from exercising outside if at all possible. As if jogging on Oxford Street was easy.

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Instead of stimulating such irrational reactions from the general public, pressure needs to be put on Sadiq Khan himself to deliver a serious plan for the city. Where the real health concern lies is with the younger generation. Khan is now firmly in the knowledge that 360 primary schools in London are located in boroughs that break the legal air pollution limit. The World Health Organization understands that such poor air can stunt the lungs in their development making those affected more vulnerable to asthma or bronchitis. With the UK having amongst the highest prevalence rates of asthma in young children worldwide and related lung problems for those children rising, Sadiq Khan is under pressure to get a move on.

Air pollution will no doubt be one of the Mayors most ongoing and important issues during his time at City Hall. It will be interesting to see how he tackles the problem. Will he look to morph the attitude of the city towards a cleaner London? Or set aggressive policies that would force the necessary reduction of emissions i.e. implement deterrents or veto certain vehicles?

Mr. Khan has already proposed the filtering out of diesel cars. Many see this as the most effective way to reach his target: attaining legal EU limits of pollution by 2025. But this could cost the Mayor £3,500 per vehicle and wouldn’t necessarily instill the values needed in the community to get such a reduction; with idling seen as a major factor.

The Mayor is not short of intent, however, it will be very difficult to maintain a sense of continuity in reducing London’s air pollution without working closely with the government. Currently our environmental standards are tied up in EU law. At present it is not known how many of the EU standards will be carried over to Britain post Brexit. This makes it even harder for Sadiq Khan to get the ball rolling on meeting his target that is itself tied up in EU law.

For now, – excuse the pun – Londoner’s shouldn’t hold their breath. Air pollution will be a main priority for City Hall in the coming years, as it should be for Londoners. Spreading awareness and valuing the air we breathe is the first step in accepting effective air policies. Doing so will be far more beneficial that the clutching of fear mongering statistics and self-restricting precautions.

As with most things post Article 50, policy regarding London’s air pollution is rather up in the air – excuse another pun. One undeniable certainty is the nature of London’s unhealthy air, the vehicles – diesel or idling – that cause it, and that the Mayor that needs to sort it.


  1. […] impact elsewhere? As underlined by previous Backbencher contributors, our capital city has air pollution worse than Beijing and 360 primary schools operate in areas which break the legal air…. By tightening the green noose around our necks, we now have a greenbelt that achieves precisely […]

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