Local Air Pollution 'Could Kill as Many as Covid-19'

Mike Fawcett on the implications of a new Imperial College report

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Air pollution in Putney and Wandsworth could kill as many people over the next few years as COVID has done to date, a new report reveals.

The report, by Imperial College researchers, estimates that air pollution was responsible in 2019 for between 115 and 129 deaths in Wandsworth Borough. If nothing is done to improve air quality, this death toll could in four years exceed the 489 (as at 19 March 2021) Wandsworth deaths caused by Covid-19.

One of the worst air pollution blackspots in the Borough (and in the whole of London) is Putney High Street, where progress on air quality has completely stalled in the last few years.

Thankfully, deaths from Covid-19 are now falling fast. Sadly, this is not the case for deaths from air pollution, which have remained stubbornly high for several years. This is not just a Wandsworth problem; Public Health England says that air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long-term exposure. Older people are more at risk. The chief killers are small particulates (PM2.5) and nitrous oxide (NO2) – largely from road vehicles, especially diesels.

PM2.5s exceed the limit recommended by the World Health Organisation throughout Putney, and indeed throughout London. On NO2 Dr Richard Carter, the convenor of the Putney Society`s air pollution sub-group, reports that the data from the official Putney High Street kerbside monitoring station showed an annual average for 2013-2016 of 123.75mcg/m3, over three times the UK legal limit of 40mcg/m3. Following the introduction of cleaner hybrid buses in late 2016/early 2017, NO2 levels have fallen. But the average for 2017-2019 was still 70.7mcg/m3 - 77% above the legal limit.

This legal limit has been in force since 2010, but progress has been very slow, mainly because many car models have been found to emit much greater quantities of pollutants in real driving conditions than had been expected from EU mandated laboratory tests.

In 2020 the NO2 levels in Putney High Street did briefly dip just below the legal limit, during the first lockdown in April and May, but then quickly rebounded to levels similar to 2018 and 2019. They have fallen again following the December lockdown, but remain above the legal limit.

Stephen Luxford, the convenor of the Putney Society`s transport panel, thinks the continued high levels of NO2 are probably due in part to the closure of Hammersmith Bridge, which has led to an increase in traffic crossing Putney Bridge, in turn leading to increased congestion on the approach roads, including Putney High Street, Putney Bridge Road and the Lower Richmond Road.

As the lockdown restrictions are eased, and something like normal service is resumed, the traffic crossing Putney Bridge is likely to increase again, leading to a further worsening of local congestion and air pollution. And it looks like it could be some years before Hammersmith Bridge can be re-opened to cars and buses.

Mike Fawcett,
Deputy Chair, Transport Panel, Putney Society

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April 2, 2021

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