Oct. 29th, 2016

juliet: The towers at Canary Wharf seen from Staves Hill in Bermondsey (london wharf)
I've been thinking about air pollution a lot lately. Tower Bridge is shut for Not Falling Down Works, and the resultant tailbacks across South London seem to be making the air significantly worse than usual. Anecdotally, as I walk down to the Jamaica Road*, the air starts tasting weird and my throat starts feeling weird.** The onset of this (I've lived in this area nearly 15 years and I don't usually have problems) precisely matched up to when the bridge shut. It would be hard to argue that there's not going to be more pollution: same number of journeys, give or take, all taking longer so generating more airborne crap. Other S Londoners of my acquaintance have noticed the same; an asthmatic friend is particularly struggling.

But are there figures? Not really: annoyingly, there's no roadside monitoring station anywhere near here, although in 2015 most of the nearby stations to me exceeded the Air Quality Strategy objectives, and it's looking the same already for 2016 even before Exciting Tailback Autumn really got going. This street-by-street map looks more useful but is a "now-cast" only (right now, at nearly 7pm on a Saturday, which shouldn't be super busy, it's at the high end of 'low' on Jamaica Rd; the notes state that 'low' levels of pollution may in fact be higher than is good for your health). I will come back to it on Monday morning. Without a very close monitoring station I do wonder how accurate this is, but looking at the nearish ones would still be informative.

Hopefully this particular batch of badness will improve in December when the bridge reopens. But London's air quality is pretty horrible at the best of times. Checking my postcode on the 'annual levels of exposure' map (data from 2013) they give rates for four pollutants:
  • NO2: my house high end of 'passes' range (37 microgrammes/m3); Jamaica Road well into 'fails' (~67 mcg/m3).

  • Ozone: my house 40 mcg/m3; Jamaica Road a bit lower as apparently ozone reacts with other pollutants so is lower close to busy roads.

  • PM10: my house passes at 25 mcg/m3; Jamaica Road not quite up to the 'fails' range at 31 mcg/m3.

  • PM2.5: my house passes at 15 mcg/m3; Jamaica Road higher but also passes at 19 mcg/m3.


This does not fill me with confidence for my respiratory health (and all the other consequences of breathing in lots of pollution).

Short of moving***, I'm now wondering if there's much I can do about this on my own behalf. (I have already commented on the current London Clean Air study, and have contributed to various similar campaigns over the years to try to fix the actual problem.) Some years ago I tried a facemask for cycling but as the Guardian discovered more recently, these are basically very uncomfortable. It's also worth knowing that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the pollution risks. So whilst a mask might make the air less icky to breathe, it makes walking or cycling around the place more unpleasant in other ways.

In terms of long-term health consequences, the main suggestion from the London Air people is "avoid busy roads" as levels drop rapidly away from them (as seen with my house vs the Jamaica Rd). That's mostly doable. There's some evidence that consuming more antioxidants (e.g. lots of vitamin C) can help protect against the long-term health consequences; I've also seen "more omega-3 fatty acids" suggested (flax oil, hemp oil****). Won't actually stop me coughing, but as "more vitamin C, more omega-3" is a pretty risk-free dietary change, probably worth doing.

The best solution though is probably for Sadiq Khan to get on with making the air actually less vile. I believe the current plan has various aims for 2020. Here's hoping.

* One of the major east-west arteries south of the river; in particular it leads to the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which is dealing with a lot of the redirected Tower Bridge traffic. Three minutes walk from my house.
** I'm also getting headaches again and sleeping badly but these might be related to one another and not to the unpleasant air.
*** Though basically to get all that much better than here I would have to move right out of London, not just a bit further out.
**** Or fish oil for non-vegans.

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