Sahara smog renews debate on air pollution

Air pollution in Manchester reached the maximum level on a government index a fortnight ago, as dust from the Sahara swept across northern Europe, prompting fresh calls for action.

Posted on 15 April 2014

Air pollution in Manchester reached the maximum level on a government index a fortnight ago, as dust from the Sahara swept across northern Europe, prompting fresh calls for action.

 

Pollutants from traffic and industry on the Continent were picked up by fine dust blowing in from Africa, leaving much of the UK shrouded in dense smog for several days.

 

Air quality in Manchester, as well as in London and much of the South and East of England, reached level ten, which is the worst possible  on the Government’s Daily Air Quality Index. This prompted the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to warn people with severe respiratory problems to avoid outdoor exercise.

 

Air pollution episodes can have serious impacts on business operations, as employees are advised to stay indoors and commuting and business travel can be hazardous.

 

According to Government figures, the impacts of air pollution as a whole are thought to cost the UK about £16 billion per year.

 

Although this month’s incident was exacerbated by circumstantial weather patterns, the European Commission (EC) is already planning to take legal action against the UK for its persistent failure to tackle domestic air pollution, as Green Intelligence reported back in February.

 

‘Another red light’

 

Jo Barnes, from the University of the West of England, said she hopes that the short-term nature of the smog, which was eventually dispelled by rain, will not disguise the wider issue of air pollution in the UK.

 

“It is good to see that this week’s extreme pollution has made it into the media and public consciousness,” she said at the time.

 

“But I hope it doesn’t give the impression that once the rains come everything will be fine”.

 

Friends of the Earth spokesperson, Jenny Bates, added: “We can’t just rely on a change of weather or wind direction to tackle the deadly air pollution incidents which regularly hit Britain – strong government action is needed to tackle the underlying problem too.

 

“Ministers... must get much tougher on the causes of air pollution – especially traffic fumes”.

 

Philip Insall, director of health and sustainable transport charity, Sustrans, commented: “Today’s air quality warning is another red light for traditional car-dominated transport policies.

 

“Hardly a day passes without new and frightening evidence of the harm done by our obsession with motorised transport”.

 

International effort

 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that air pollution caused 3.7 million deaths around the world in 2012, with 279,000 in the relatively wealthy countries of Northern Europe, alone.

 

Alan Andrews, a lawyer for environmental NGO, ClientEarth, said: “As the events of the last few days have shown, this is a problem that no one country can solve by itself.

 

“The UK needs to be a leading voice in Europe calling for tough new legislation to tackle pollution at source”.

Posted under General Interest on 15 April 2014