What You Can Do for London’s Lungs

Take a nice deep breath. For thousands of people living in London, that’s a luxury.  

FreeImages.com/Christina Papadopoullo

With its plethora of parks, our capital may be one of the greenest cities. But it’s also one of the most polluted. For the last five years, London has been in breach of EU safety limits on NO2.

I’ve noticed it getting worse. For an instant lesson in air quality, head for the outer reaches of one of the Tube lines and see how fresh the air feels when you step outside. 

Pollution isn’t just an irritant to the throat, nose, or eyes. It’s damaging to health, increasing the risk of lung cancer and chronic lung disease, and driving up hospital admission rates for those with pre-existing lung or heart disease.

FreeImages.com/Dave Kennard

Children’s lungs are most vulnerable, yet around 330,000 London kids go to school in areas with illegal levels of pollution.

Pollution has also been linked with damage during pregnancy, including low birth weight and pre-term birth.

I’ll cut a long story short: at least 9,500 deaths a year in London are linked with air pollution.

We may not have the pea-soupers of the 1950s that smothered London in soot and sulphur dioxide for days at a time. But we have a haze of small particles, especially PM2.5s, along with the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide NO(not to be confused with laughing gas because this one isn’t funny).

FreeImages.com/Simon Gray

PM2.5s are fine particles, less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. They come from things like motor vehicles, power plants, and wood-burning, and they’re harmful because they’re small enough to reach the deepest recesses of the lungs.

Nitrous oxide comes largely from diesel cars, lorries, and buses. It follows that pollution is worse near busy roads, which is often where less advantaged families live. But even short-term exposure to air pollution can damage.

Why am I banging on about it now?

Because on May 5, London elects a new Mayor. As a parent, a doctor, and a Londoner, I whole-heartedly support The British Lung Foundation’s #Londonlungs campaign. It calls for the next Mayor and Assembly members to prioritise lung health.

FreeImages.com/Andrew Rigby

So much could be done, from tree and hedge planting schemes to improving transport strategy and extending the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) eastwards – where there’s a lot of deprivation and air pollution.

You too can help by getting on board and asking all the mayoral candidates whether they pledge to protect Londoner’s lungs. You could also share the campaign on social media with the hashtag #Londonlungs.

FreeImages.com/Adam Ciesielski

What else can you do?

There are obvious individual steps to help protect the lungs and heart, like not smoking.

Driving less, for instance by sharing cars or using public transport, helps drive down vehicle emissions. If you’re buying or leasing a car, choose a low-emission model.

Take the longer route on foot or cycle via a less polluted area if you can. You may be interested in the Clean Space app

The British Lung Foundation has some great tips for when air pollution levels are very high. You can find them here

 

An Epiphany

Twelfth Night looms and Harriet cannot wait for all traces of Christmas to be gone.  

Christmas tree

Simon packs every single decoration off the tree into its rightful place in its box. Only he knows where this is, so all Harriet can do is make tea. It’s Lapsang Souchong, brewed in a pot because he always says it tastes better that way.

Freelance journalist Harriet is a character from my novel One Night at the Jacaranda.

On the first day of Christmas, Simon gave her a cashmere and silk jumper, but it’s not nearly as soft as Pushkin was.  

Pushkin

On the second day of Christmas, they had turkey drumsticks and leftover roast potatoes which, Simon reminded her, had not been as crisp on the day as they could have been. 

Of course they weren’t. The heart went out of Christmas several years ago.

The tree survived well, but that was because there was no Pushkin to climb its branches or bat the baubles off.

“It’s just ailurophobia” she’d told Simon at first.  But it wasn’t fear of cats.  His breathing was really bad, beyond the help of inhalers, pills and sprays, and there was a tissue permanently attached to his nose.  She tried products to keep down fur and dander, to no avail.  It would have to be the RSPCA or the Mayhew Home. What alternative was there?

It was December 18. Simon got the cat basket out of the cupboard and Pushkin promptly fled under the bed. 

“He’s gone into the bedroom!” cried Simon. “Now I’ll be wheezing all night.”

“Well, he won’t be here much longer, will he?” Harriet retorted.

Pushkin emerged warily, though not warily enough.

“Grab him, Harriet.  I’d rather not touch him.”

Harriet picked him up and kissed the soft places behind his ears.  It was too awful to let him go. “It’s raining,” she pointed out.  “Pushkin hates rain.”

“Put a towel over the basket if you’re so concerned.” 

cat basket

The car was parked two streets away.  Simon went to get it, but he drew the line at driving to the shelter.  “I’d rather not spend the next hour sitting a foot away from him.”

Harriet lugged the basket downstairs and into the car.  As Simon got out of the driver’s side, he warned, “Don’t bottle now, Harriet.”  He may as well have added it was only a cat.

Harriet negotiated the traffic out of London.  She thought the RSPCA place off the A1(M) would be best, as there’d be more chance of finding him a suitable home in a rural area.  Plus with a shelter that far she’d be less tempted to rush back and adopt Pushkin herself.

She got stuck in a fierce bottle-neck on the A41, trapped between a bus and a Chelsea tractor surely bound for Brent Cross. When she finally moved off, a van driver nearly clipped the wing of the Peugeot.

Harriet had transferred the basket to the passenger seat.  Pushkin yowled and stared at her through the grating with huge eyes.

“Come on, big boy,” she said, her voice catching.  “Everything’s going to be fine.” 

Her words failed to reassure a stressed Pushkin, and the car filled with an unmistakeable aroma.  Fresh dog turds occasionally smell of coffee grounds. Cat shit, on the other hand, only ever smells of one thing.

Harriet wept openly on arrival.  The kindness of the RSPCA staff only made things worse.

“My partner’s allergic to cats,” Harriet explained. 

“Has the cat had any health problems?” the girl asked.

“Well, he has a slight irritable bowel.”  What kind of luck was it to have a fastidious boyfriend and a cat with loose motions? 

Tears streaming, she left Pushkin and a large donation and returned to the car with the empty basket.  

The potatoes had been soggy and the turkey tasteless ever since.  

roast potatoes

As the last bauble goes into the box, Harriet thinks of this year’s Christmas message from the Queen and its theme of reconciliation.  She wonders whether it can ever apply to them.

***

Twelfth Night marks the end of Christmas for many people, but in the Eastern Orthodox Church Christmas isn’t until January 7. That means there’s still time to enjoy the Christmas Party Blog Hop devised by Helen Hollick. My own contribution is below, and you’ll find about 25 other bloggers taking part too.

2014-ChristmasPartyBlogHop