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Book review: ‘Every Breath You Take’ by Mark Broomfield

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Dragging an environmental concern that has fallen off the radar back into the spotlight.

When it comes to air you breathe, there are two things we all need to know, says Mark Broomfield in ‘Every Breath You Take’ (Duckworth, £9.99, ISBN 9780715653708), his user’s guide to the atmosphere. First is that the quality of your air locally can affect the value of your house by as much as 14 per cent. Second, air pollution is responsible for as many as seven million premature deaths worldwide annually. And while Broomfield rather graciously leaves it to the individual reader to determine which of these statistics is of higher personal priority, he’s not so coy about making the fully realised statement that air pollution has a more significant detrimental effect on the world’s health than passive smoking, obesity and water pollution put together.

It is, he says, “a really big deal,” primarily because we cannot mitigate its effects with personal responsibility: “You don’t have much choice about what you breathe, and the air goes deep into your body where it’s needed to keep you alive, but might also do you a little bit of harm.” This might seem an imprecise vocabulary set for a writer that has a three-decade career in serious research into atmospheric chemistry. But it is, in fact, one of the strongest points of his approach to encouraging a wider public understanding of just how significant a global challenge air pollution really is.

While ‘Every Breath You Take’ is respectably packed from cover to cover with strong science and current thinking, to gain traction for a subject that is ‘living in the shadow’ of climate change and global warming, Broomfield has adopted the approach of making it informal in tone. So successful is he in making an “obscure corner of an obscure subject” entertainment – it is often genuinely funny –it’s hard to get irritated when he shaves six months off the readers’ lives in order to get them to “grasp the magnitude of all those millions of unnecessary deaths.” After shocking us to attention, he takes us out of the Solar System in pursuit of his point, before bringing us back in again, literally to street level.

Air pollution needs to be readdressed, if only because such arcane terms as ‘ozone layer’ and ‘acid rain’ have fallen out of the news cycle to make room for new fashions in environmental media coverage. And while there are times when Broomfield seems to be hitting his good-natured head against a brick wall, the sub-text of one of the best popular science books of the year is one of a determined mission on behalf of a crucial environmental concern that has somehow fallen off the protest radar. It may have yielded its spotlight to climate change, but air pollution isn’t going away unless more is done internationally at government level, leaving Broomfield banging the drum for any that will listen. Great stuff.

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