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Barnet’s air quality. Why we should be concerned.

From 2016 to 2019 Central London experienced significant improvements in air quality [1]. One consequence was a 97 per cent reduction in the number of inner London schools exceeding legal pollution limits – from 455 in 2016, to just 14 in 2019 – as well as a 94 per cent reduction in the number of these areas exceeding legal limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). It is also predicted to increase the average life expectancy of a child born in inner London in 2013 by six months [1].

Despite this, the levels of air pollution in London are still far too high and the improvements in air quality in inner London have not happened in many outer boroughs.. An Imperial College study concluded that toxic air had contributed to the deaths of more than 4,000 Londoners in 2019 [1], the boroughs with the largest number of air pollution related deaths in 2019 being Bromley, Barnet, Croydon and Havering [1].

That pollution-related deaths are higher in outer boroughs is partly a reflection of the higher proportion of elderly residents in these boroughs. Older people are generally more vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution. We know that air pollution increases the severity of other health problems, like heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and high blood pressure. Other factors are also involved. Londoners exposed to the worst air pollution are more likely to live in deprived areas and to be from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. There is also emerging evidence that links air pollution to an increased vulnerability to the most severe impacts of COVID-19 [2].

The expanded ULEZ may exacerbate the problems Barnet faces when dealing with air pollution.

The success of the existing central London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) gives confidence that the expansion of the ULEZ on 26 October 2021 [2] and tighter standards for heavy vehicles across the entire city will deliver wider benefits. It is predicted that this will save the NHS around £5 billion and prevent more than one million hospital admissions over the next 30 years [1]. Barnet Council has produced detailed information as to the parts of the borough most affected by air pollution, as part of its plan detailing actions it aims to deliver between 2017 and 2022 in order to improve local air quality in the borough [3].

The boundary of the new, expanded ULEZ will be at (but not including) the A406 North Circular [2]. Unfortunately as much of Barnet lies outside of this new ULEZ, this ULEZ expansion is unlikely to lead to an overall improvement of air quality in the borough. Instead it may lead to many residential streets near the A406 in Barnet becoming more congested and polluted, as drivers try to avoid the charge. There are also the highly polluted trunk roads north of the A406 such as A1, M1, A41, A5 and A1000 that are not in the new ULEZ and will not therefore see reductions in vehicle pollution.

BCAG would like to see a prioritisation of Barnet Council’s stated objective [3] of exploring the option of increasing the ULEZ to cover the whole of Barnet. This could potentially have the most significant impact on improving air quality in the borough. GLA evidence for ULEZ expansion predicts a 31% reduction in NOx emissions in Barnet by 2025 if all of Barnet were to be in a ULEZ, but only an 8% decrease with just the area south of the A406 is in the new, expanded ULEZ [3].

Furthermore, while expanding ULEZ will help reduce NO2 levels in London (the latter mainly due to diesel exhaust), we will still be faced with the problem of breathing in unacceptable levels of PM2.5 particulates (ninety-nine per cent of London does not meet WHO recommended limits for PM2.5 – the particles most dangerous for health). Expanding our low traffic neighbourhoods might not always partially solve this PM2.5 problem, since they can lead to traffic being diverted from more affluent “leafy” roads to busier, potentially less affluent areas. The latest Imperial College study of pollution levels in the Marylebone Road during lockdown has found that particulate pollution from tyres and brakes has not declined with the reduced volume of traffic, since this traffic is now moving faster.

The prospect for real-time monitoring of the pollution in Barnet.

BCAG would like to see the participation of Barnet in the London Air Quality Network [4] and – in the very near future – Barnet included in the Breathe London real time monitoring of pollution [5].

Barnet Council is currently monitoring pollution at two sites and has produced a detailed pollution map of the borough [3]. However this map is based on single measurements at several individual sites, whereas the pollution levels at all of these sites will vary considerably over time with changes in traffic levels, weather conditions etc. What is needed is up-to-date information provided by continuous monitoring of pollution throughout the day (“real-time” monitoring) – readily accessible to everyone through the CityAir app. Breathe London is currently placing the sensors for such pollution monitoring at 300 sites across London [5]. In addition it will be providing each London borough at least one sensor, the borough then being able to chose the location of this sensor in conjunction with local communities [5]. Furthermore, in addition to these Breathe London sponsored sensors, boroughs and other organisations will be able to ‘buy in’ extra sensors to the network at a greatly reduced cost [5]. With the launch of this programme, there is no reason that a network of sensors cannot now supply online localized air pollution data in real-time for those sites in Barnet where residents are most exposed to pollution. Residents will then be able to use the CityAir app to minimise pollutant harm to themselves and their children, Policymakers can also identify problem areas and take steps to protect those who are most at risk, including school children and the residents of lower-income neighbourhoods. The technology is now available. BCAG believes it should be introduced with high priority.

BCAG would also like to see the right air quality standards – legally binding WHO recommended limits on pollutants – to be achieved by 2030, adopted in the Government’s new, but at present underwhelming, Environment Bill. This will be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild our cities and economies to be greener, fairer, and more sustainable. However under the Government’s current plans, air pollution in the UK is expected to remain at dangerous levels for at least another 10 years [6]. The estimated cost to health and social care services is upwards of a staggering £2 billion [7], as a result of its impact on heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and childhood asthma.

Improving air quality is key for our children’s future.

Children are one of the worst affected groups when it comes to air pollution. According to Unicef UK, children are growing up breathing hazardous levels of toxic air across 86% the UK. It stunts their lung development and increases risk of asthma and pneumonia. Furthermore children breathing toxic air are four times more likely to have reduced lung function in adulthood. All policymakers should take necessary action to protect children especially from road transport emissions. A recent study found that children are most exposed travelling to school, not in the classroom [8].

The latest Breathe London dataset of nitrogen oxides (NOx) pollution at 1,795 primary schools across the city [9] attributes 45% of the pollution in Barnet to road traffic. The 10 schools in Barnet most affected by poor air quality are:

  1. Wentworth Tutorial College
  2. Wessex Gardens Primary
  3. Golders Hill
  4. Mapledown
  5. Colindale Primary
  6. St Josephs Catholic Primary
  7. Beis Medrash Elyon
  8. All Saints CofE Primary NW2
  9. Barnet Hill Academy
  10. Nancy Reuben Primary

Websources:

[1] https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/213273/tackling-londons-pollution-will-increase-life/

https://www.londonair.org.uk/london/asp/lahome.asp?la_id=2

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749120365489

[3] https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/driving/ultra-low-emission-zone/ulez-expansion

[4] https://www.barnet.gov.uk/environmental-problems/air-quality/air-quality-action-plan

[5] https://www.breathelondon.org/

[6] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: Clean Air Strategy

[7] Public Health England: Estimation of costs to the NHS and social care due to the health impacts of air pollution, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/air-pollution-a-tool-to-estimate-healthcare-costs

[8] https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/walking-to-school-on-back-streets-halves-pollution

[9] https://www.edfeurope.org/news/2020/10/11/new-data-air-pollution-sources-london-schools

[10] https://www.unicef.org.uk/press-releases/child-health-experts-warn-air-pollution-is-damaging-childrens-health/