We all breathe the same poor air in Greenwich

The Greenwich Society and East Greenwich Residents Association combined to assess air quality in both West and East Greenwich in April/May. Air diffusion tubes that measure nitrogen dioxide levels were installed at 22 locations, 6 in West and 16 in East Greenwich. The installation complied with DEFRA guidelines and the tubes were sent to an accredited laboratory in Didcot for analysis. The laboratory has had to cope with an unprecedented demand this year as local councils step up their air quality monitoring. It took over a month for the results to be available.

Those results make sorry, but predictable, reading. The air along all our main roads breaches legal limits for nitrogen dioxide. The limit is 40 milligrams per cubic metre of air. It is a level at which infraction fines may be imposed, although a recent referendum may call that into question. It is, more importantly, a level above which there is a presumption that any action should not cause additional pollution. Developments should be “air quality neutral” to use the jargon. We all use those roads as pedestrians, cyclists or drivers. Don’t imagine you are protected in a car. Tests have shown that pollution inside is the same as outside.

It is certainly better to live away from those main roads. But unless you live in a salubrious street like Gloucester Circus, or perhaps very near the Park, levels are still “Elevated”. Most of the quieter streets tested fall into that category. Air quality is poor even in the school playgrounds of Halstow and the Forum crèche that were sampled, as well as near the schools on Comerell Street and certainly at St Alfege on Creek Road. EGRA has held several meetings with local schools and awareness is running high.

Although awareness of our poor air quality has grown greatly in the last year or so, no real action has yet been taken. Air pollution is held to be responsible for nearly 10,000 early deaths a year in London. The survey in Greenwich only sampled nitrogen dioxide which is just one ingredient of the cocktail that causes death and ill health. It especially affects children; hence the schools focus.

So, what can be done? First, it seems reasonable to question any new development that may add to the already high levels of pollution in Greenwich. Second, national and regional government should address principle causes of city pollution, starting with diesel vehicles including the bus and taxi fleet. Local mitigation measures may be helpful though limited. The Borough has proposed a Low Emission Neighbourhood in a part of East Greenwich and the new Mayor is toying with an ultra low emission zone within the circular roads, north and south.

Some of this may cost public money which is in short supply. We could start however with remembering the old clean air acts of 1956 and 1968 through which the UK pioneered improved air quality. The demise of the open hearth in the 1960s and 1970s should now be followed by the retirement of old-fashioned forms of transport that ruin our environment. That’s a big step; we should though begin with some small steps, and very soon.