Print Edition - 2017-05-03  |  The Guardian

Children can’t play if they can’t breathe

  • Ministers hide truth about atmospheric contamination, so people are taking precautions for themselves
- Deborah Orr

May 3, 2017-

As lame excuses go, this one was pretty near legless. The government was meant to be revealing its plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide air pollution last Monday. Instead, the previous Friday, it applied to the high court to delay publication until after the general election, arguing that publication would “violate election propriety”. The judge ruled that it was possible local elections might be affected, but that the plan should be published on 9 May, after the local voting was over.

The government often appears eager to appease the fuel lobby. One populist pressure group, Fair Fuel UK, cares only about the right of its 1.4 million members to drive their vehicles, full of cheap fuel, wherever and whenever they want. This group claims anything that doesn’t suit its agenda is “fake news”. In fact, that successive governments have been running scared of the fuel lobby for decades is proof that fake news works.

Fair Fuel UK thinks the high court judge got it wrong. It “may force the government to produce ill-thought-out tactics that will impact badly on hardworking diesel drivers, hardworking families, white van drivers and small businesses”, the group argued in a speedily produced press release. This argument strikes me as an ill-thought-out tactic in itself. Time is not something the government has been short of in this matter.

Britain signed up to a European directive on limiting nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, which itself followed World Health Organization guidelines, in 1999. Hardworking diesel drivers, hardworking families, white van drivers and small businesses will have had their share of the heart attacks, strokes and respiratory disorders in the years since then. Their children will have grown up breathing in NO2.

The problem is widespread. A recent investigation by the Guardian and Greenpeace found that “hundreds of thousands of children are being exposed to illegal levels of damaging air pollution from diesel vehicles at schools and nurseries across England and Wales”. This is no small thing. Exposure over short periods can aggravate respiratory diseases—particularly asthma—leading to respiratory symptoms such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing. It helps to explain why childhood asthma increased hugely in Europe over the second half of the 20th century. The presence of NO2 also triggers allergic reactions to pollen. More than one in four Britons now suffer from hayfever, up from one in eight in the early 80s.

The problems caused by NO2 have been apparent for quite some time. As has acknowledgement that something has to be done about them. EU nations were tasked in the 1999 directive with getting these dangerous emissions down to healthier levels by 2010. Instead Britain, along with most of the continent, has been flouting those guidelines outrageously. Britain has been pumping its annual NO2 quota into the atmosphere by early spring for years.This year, in Brixton, south London, hourly limits on NO2 emissions were breached just five days in. We have been in the midst of a full-blown public health crisis for decades. The idea of the government being bounced into something “a bit hasty” is utterly absurd.

Campaign group ClientEarth took the government to court about the matter in 2011. The case was referred to the European court of justice, which ruled in 2014 that European governments should find ways to comply with the NO2 targets “as soon as possible”. In 2015 the UK’s supreme court ordered that the government should take “immediate action”.

This inspired a plan for clean air zones in five British cities, which ClientEarth again took issue with: the plan wouldn’t get emissions down by 2020 for various reasons, including the fact that the benefits of greener diesel had been hugely overestimated, as the Volkswagen emissions scandal exposed.

ClientEarth went to court and won again last November, when the government was ordered to come up with a credible strategy to clean up Britain’s air “urgently”. So the 9 May publication is awaited with some impatience.

Meanwhile, the sum of human knowledge grows apace. While it remains clear that NO2 damages children’s health and development, it has now been found that pollution from particulates is even more damaging. Like NO2, these are emitted by diesel vehicles.

Meanwhile, in the schools that the children of hardworking diesel drivers attend, there is talk of moving playgrounds away from school gates near busy roads, or simply not letting the kids play outside when air pollution is particularly bad.

It’s sad that people are having to make their own plans to try to protect their children, when this is so very obviously a crisis that needs national and international cooperation and commitment. But what else can worried people do, except swallow fake news and hope?

Published: 03-05-2017 08:38

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