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

 

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The Nuisance of Smoking Bans

Less than four weeks ago it became illegal in England to smoke in a car carrying anyone who’s under 18. As a medic, I think the new legislation is a great idea. To me, the earlier 2007 ban on smoking in indoor public spaces was a no-brainer. It has helped to bring down rates of lung and heart disease. But there’ve been consequences I’m less keen on.

FreeImages.com/Adri Claassens

Enter (or rather exit) the denizens of the local Social Club, as it calls itself.

Its cheap booze and bar billiards attract drinkers from miles around.  Except that they haven’t all come to sit in the warm convivial atmosphere. A sizeable contingent of patrons are lounging against the lamp-posts, or parking their backsides on neighbouring walls so they can enjoy their tobacco habit.

There’s not an e-cigarette user among them tonight. These are hard-core, like 18-year old Chloe whose birthday was last weekend. She spent her summer in Ayia Napa, got a cute new tat on her left buttock, and broke up with Jason cos he shagged Melanie. I know all this because Chloe has the dulcet tones of a foghorn and her fav smoking spot is under our bedroom window.

This, by the way, is Cambridge, and about as far from punting and Pimm’s as you can get.

Punts on the River Cam

I go to the window and catch a glimpse of Chloe through the blinds. She has a backside the size of a shire mare’s and I begin to fear for the wall.

She’s not talking to herself, of course. All the cool people go outside to smoke these days. Darren is a gas fitter but he was laid off last week, and his mum’s got a new boyfriend. By the light of the street lamp I make out another woman, a guy in an Iron Maiden T-shirt and what’s left of his hair scraped into a pony tail and, and a man who’s clearly thought ahead because he’s got on fingerless gloves, plus a bobble hat pulled down to his eyes.  

I jam earplugs further into my ears. It’s obviously going to be a long night. As a medical journalist, I’m often asked to reel off the dangers of smoking. Now I can add earache and insomnia to the list.

2 brands of earplugs

The Social Club has long shut but that doesn’t matter because someone’s brought tinnies. Nobody goes anywhere until about half past midnight when a taxi shows up. Whose taxi is it?  A punch-up ensues to settle this.

None of these soothing sounds feature on my app of atmospheric tracks to doze off by. There is Australian Beach, Cape Cod, and Whale Music. Oh, and Night Ambience, though it’s not anything like this. Could be a gap in the market.

beer and cider tins

After the taxi episode, I hear tins been kicked in the road, followed by a particularly good joke which has the revellers laughing like drains. Around 1.30am a car alarm goes off. We’ve had around two minutes’ sleep so far.

What will the ban on smoking in cars with youngsters bring? Hopefully only good, but I’m not holding my breath.