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On Poor Air Quality, We Face 'Perfect Storm' In 2012 - Or Do We?

London Air Quality

First Posted: 05/07/11 21:31 Updated: 04/09/11 11:12

Last Wednesday at the View Tube, an arts and community center in East London within clear view of the nascent 2012 Olympic site, the artist Faisal Abdu’Allah launched a two-week film exhibition on breathing.

In collaboration with three Olympic athletes and scientists from King's College and Brunel University, the 9-minute, 58-second film titled "Double Pendulum" - its duration cleverly designed to match the current 100-meter sprint record set by Usain Bolt in 2009 - nominally "examines the journey that air takes through the human form."

But it also arrives, quite intentionally, at time when press reports have suggested that Britain could face stiff sanctions from the European Commission, and fines of up to £175 million - or $280 million - by the International Olympic Committee, for violation of international air quality standards.

"It raises some issues about the air quality in East London," Abdu'Allah explains in a pre-screening overview of the film posted to YouTube, "and how it possibly could affect the athletes that come here in 2012."

A promotional pamphlet from the organisation that commissioned the work puts the film's thesis more starkly:

"With a high prevalence of asthma in elite athletes, aggravated by poor air quality and official readings showing a high air pollution index at the last Beijing Olympics, this is serious stuff," the flyer reads, "because London is one of the most polluted cities in Europe and air pollution kills."

Indeed, with just over a year remaining before the opening ceremonies for the 30th Olympic Games, London's ongoing battle with air quality has the event, literally and figuratively, under something of a cloud.

Throw in the threat of legal action by the European Commission for the city's continued failure to meet air pollution limits, and a mayoral election early next year that will almost certainly see the city's lingering air pollution issues at the center of debate, and London may soon find itself in the midst of what clean-air advocate Simon Birkett called "a perfect storm" of controversy over foul air.

"I’m really hopeful that this health message will get out and put shock waves through the system," said Birkett, a former banker turned clean-air campaigner and founder of the organisation Clean Air in London.

The consequences of continued inaction, studies show, are more than just economic, including the probable shortening of thousands of London lives each year. Whether that, or the threat of fines and sanctions - which are really only that, in the short term - will nudge officials to respond to the issue is far from clear.


Failure to Comply

Since 1999, the European Union has set limits for several types of pollution for member states, though the chief concerns are over breathable airborne particles, or particulate matter (PM) that arise, for example, from vehicle soot and smoke, and nitrogen dioxide, or NO2 - a chief component of smog arising from engines and energy production.

Using World Health Organisation recommended limits as a guide, the E.U. sets a variety of exposure limits for these pollutants, measured in micrograms per cubic meter.

Countries were given until 2005 to meet the limits on particulate matter, and until 2010 to control NO2. In 2008, the law was updated to allow member states to apply for compliance extensions. Britain has never achieved compliance on particulate matter and has requested more time to meet targets.

It plans to apply for more time to demonstrate compliance with the NO2 standard in September.

Meanwhile, Birkett's group says the clock is ticking. The organisation revealed two weeks ago, for example, that as many as 1,148 schools in London are within 150 meters, or about 500 feet of roads carrying over 10,000 vehicles per day. Some 2,270 are within 400 meters, or 1,300 feet of such roads.

Why does that matter? For starters, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that air pollution, particularly that generated by heavy urban traffic, is more dangerous than previously thought.

One study in particular, prepared by a group of scientists dedicated to studying air quality in Europe, suggested that merely living in proximity to roads travelled by 10,000 or more vehicles per day could be responsible for between 15 and 30 percent of all new cases of asthma in children, and of certain varieties of heart disease in adults over the age of 65.

A recent analysis from the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, meanwhile, concluded that "poor air quality reduces the life expectancy of everyone in the UK by an average of seven to eight months, and up to 50,000 people a year may die prematurely because of it."

A separate 2010 analysis from the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, a network of scientists working in atmospheric chemistry, toxicology, physiology and epidemiology, among other fields, painted an even more dire picture. It estimated that human-generated particulate matter, in concert with other factors, contributed to the premature deaths of up to 200,000 people in the UK in 2008.

Grim statistics, to be sure, though in fairness, London's battle with air quality is hardly unique - it was a far worse scenario four years ago at the Olympic Games in Beijing.


A Problem Far and Wide

Ahead of the 2008 games, authorities in that famously smog-ridden city implemented a series of Draconian measures, including taking 1.5 million cars - half the city's normal volume - off the road on alternating days. License plate numbers were divided into odds and evens for the task.

Factories within 100 miles of the city were also shuttered, construction work was halted, and cars and trucks from outside the city were blocked from entering.

None of this prevented the city's poor air quality from affecting some of the competing athletes, and much political capital was spent explaining why some national teams refused to attend the opening ceremonies to limit their exposure to the foul air, while others donned pollution-reducing masks on stepping off the plane in Beijing.

At least one athlete - the record-setting distance runner Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia - announced months before the 2008 games that he would rather not risk Beijing's poor air quality. "The pollution in China is a threat to my health and it would be difficult for me to run 42 kilometers in my current condition,” he told Reuters at the time.

No such boycotts have been suggested for London, but in April, The Guardian newspaper reported that the city's contract with the International Olympic Committee obliged it to comply with international air quality standards, or face a revocation of broadcast revenues that would amount to a fine of some £175 million, or about $280 million.

That contractual tidbit is unlikely to be enforced, however, according to Emmanuelle Moreau, the head of media relations for the IOC. "Safe and healthy competition conditions for athletes are a top priority for everyone involved in the Games and, as for previous editions, the IOC will work with the local organisers and public authorities to ensure this is the case in 2012," Moreau said in an email message. "The withholding of any revenues for environmental reasons would only be a last resort and we are not expecting to have to do this for London 2012."

Beijing, for all its woes, was never fined either.

Meanwhile, plenty of ordinary citizens in other parts of Europe have air quality problems of their own. A study released in March by the same group of scientists that examined the impact of vehicle proximity on health ranked London as being on the cleaner end of the spectrum among two dozen other European cities - although it remained outside World Health Organisation recommended pollution limits.

Bucharest, Budapest and another recent Olympic locale - Athens - were ranked among the most polluted.

In March, Britain was granted a conditional extension by the European Commission to demonstrate its ability to comply with European air quality rules - temporarily averting further enforcement action that could result in fines of hundreds of millions of pounds.

Frequent press reports put the potential damages at £300 million, or nearly half a billion dollars.

But Joseph Hennon, a spokesman for European Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik, noted that we are hardly alone, and that several other countries in Europe are either struggling, or not trying hard enough, to meet required air quality limits. Cases against Spain, Portugal, Italy and Slovenia, he said, have already been taken to the European Court of Justice, Hennon noted - a stage in a very long enforcement process that the UK has not yet reached.

Any actual financial sanctions against the UK would therefore occur years down the line - and well beyond the coming and going of the 30th Olympiad.

"The commission is more interested in solving the problem than in taking countries to court," Hennon said. "The point is to stop the breach of the law and protect public health, and we're bringing as much pressure to bear on UK as we can.”

Whether that pressure, or even that which comes with Olympic-level international attention, will bring about radical change ahead of the Olympics is an open question. A recent analysis from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, suggested that, in any case, several urban areas in the UK would fail to achieve NO2 compliance even by 2015, and that London was unlikely to do so before 2025.


Keeping Up the Pressure

Much of the blame for this has been placed on London mayor, Boris Johnson, who critics say has done little to improve the situation, even rolling back or stalling measures put in place by his predecessor - and 2012 challenger - Ken Livingstone.

But Kulveer Ranger, the mayor's Environment Director, said in an emailed statement that Johnson "recognises that road pollution is a serious health issue for Londoners and is doing all he can to tackle it.

"This includes introducing tough measures to clean up transport such as removing the license to operate from the dirtiest cabs, record investment into cycling and tightening the standards to the London Low Emission Zone," Ranger continued "We are introducing new and innovative measures such as dust suppressant technology in central London areas and championing zero and low emission vehicles such as hybrid and hydrogen buses and electric vehicles."

Ranger also pointed to bicycle promotion at London schools and various efforts to reduce car idling and encourage "smarter driving" to reduce emissions as being part of the mayor's plan.

Birkett, citing the mayor's attempts to postpone and delay expansion of the city's Low Emission Zone, which imposes a fine on vehicles spewing the most particulate matter, and his scrapping the congestion charge in the western part of London, dismisses the mayor's efforts as so much greenwash.

"This is all consistent with the mayor's continued backward steps and not doing enough to tackle the problem," Birkett said.

Setting aside a recent analysis led by King's College London that suggested that the city's congestion plan has had little impact air quality, Birkett is not alone in his charges. And with the issue of pollution hanging heavy in the air, campaign groups are planning to ramp up pressure of their own.

On Wednesday afternoon, members of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee are expected to grill Lord Henley, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, along with other officials, on the continuing air quality problem.

A week later, on July 13, members of the activist group Climate Rush are planning a bicycle ride and ultimate "die-in" - with the aim of blocking London rush hour traffic - as a way of protesting the continued air quality problem.

Tamsin Omond, a founder of the group, said in a phone call that the city has too long prioritised motorised vehicles over the needs and vulnerabilities of cyclists, pedestrians and other citizens who must grapple with the foul air.

"This isn’t good enough," she said. "We are breathing in this incredibly dirty air and we need to make it clear to people our roads are a death trap."

The issue, Omond and others say, remains profoundly misunderstood.

"If people knew how dangerous it was, we wouldn't allow it to be this way."

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