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‘Ever since humans discovered fire, air pollution has been an issue’: Chris Woodford

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Air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats we face today and one of the most significant causes of premature death. Author Chris Woodford discusses the science and statistics.

Although it’s tempting to think that air quality in the 21st century is poor, it’s important to realise, says Chris Woodford, that “pretty much ever since humans discovered fire, air pollution has been an issue”. If you go back through history you could argue that it’s always been the case, says the author of ‘Breathless’, a book in the popular science genre that examines, in the words of its subtitle, ‘why air pollution matters – and how it affects you’.

How much of an issue air pollution has been over the centuries depends on how you quantify it. “In terms of deaths we’re talking about possibly as many as ten million annually worldwide,” with the UK responsible for around 30,000 of those. “That’s frightening. When you think that coronavirus has passed 100,000 here in the UK. Well, air pollution notches up 30,000 a year. Year after year.” And if you look at the statistics for the past decade, “we’re not actually making any progress in bringing that number down”. You can measure the impact in other ways – such as the type of airborne contaminants – but how many people die as a result of that pollution “is a meaningful way to look at the problem”.

Top-line findings in ‘Breathless’ make for grim reading. Together, indoor and outdoor air pollution present a greater health risk than anything other than high blood pressure. It is implicated in six of the top ten causes of death worldwide, including lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and dementia. Air pollution is one of the most significant causes of premature death worldwide. The ten million casualties represent five times as many deaths as there are in road traffic accidents, three times more than tobacco smoking, 15 times more than all wars and other violence put together, and more than malaria and AIDS combined. The financial cost is staggering: the $5tn annually lost to the world’s economies could triple the global defence spend.

As air pollution is global, “talking about it as a single entity often isn’t all that useful”, says Woodford, a prolific author of several best-selling science and technology titles as well as being founder of the Explain That Stuff website currently boasting more than 100 million pages. “If you look at Asia, where it is substantially an indoor issue, the problem is more to do with people cooking and heating their homes with biomass and wood fuels. But if you come over to the UK, the emphasis is on entirely different things such as urban traffic.” All of which means that “despite my book being about ‘air pollution’ as a whole, it’s not sensible to talk about its causes and solutions in a monolithic way”.

We read it for you

‘Breathless: Why Air Pollution Matters – and How it Affects You’

We take a deep breath 20,000 times a day, assuming that the air we breathe is life-sustaining. It’s an assumption questioned and examined with both science and statistics by Chris Woodford in his latest book ‘Breathless.’

In Delhi, toxic smog is so bad for you that you might as well be smoking 50 cigarettes a day. There are 15 cities globally where if you were to exercise outdoors, you’d be doing yourself more harm than good because of the air pollution. Even in cities such as Paris, London or Rome, exposure to ‘fresh air’ is the equivalent of two or three gaspers.

Air pollution, says Woodford, is a much bigger issue than most of us think. ‘Breathless’ provides the facts about air pollution in our everyday lives: its causes, effects and, crucially, what can be done about it both at individual and national levels.

If you were to ask someone for a spontaneous description of what air pollution is, what’s most likely to spring to mind is “an image of dirty old factories, smokestacks, drifting black clouds across urban London. Which is understandable,” says Woodford, “because this was probably what it was like back in Dickensian times, or during the Great Smog of the 1950s that killed thousands of people.” The problems back then were, as this image illustrates: dirty power plants and factories, domestic coal burning. “But today the picture is different because that was an obvious problem to focus on and clean up.” This means that the blame has shifted to areas such as agriculture, traffic, and domestic wood burning.

Engineers working in industry can give themselves a pat on the back, says Woodford, because “these areas in the UK have got their act together quite well and are no longer the bugbear they used to be”.

When it comes to alleviating air pollution, one of the biggest challenges is simply the fact that people don’t realise the scale of the problem, says Woodford, who thinks that this deficiency in awareness stems from a “basic lack of education on the subject”.

In terms of technical solutions, the starting point has to be monitoring air quality, “so that we can make it more obvious to people what pollution they are experiencing”. For the government, having targets for specific pollutants and having plans for achieving them is the way forward, although “linking air pollution to climate change and understanding that they are two sides of the same coin is also vital. So too are cost-benefit analyses. I think if governments invested in such activities for say, improving air quality in Birmingham, then they would find that this is a much better use of public money than big infrastructure projects.”

While researching ‘Breathless’, Woodford carried air-monitoring equipment with him, for no other reason than to focus on the topic. In his mind, he’d be using the sensor when looking for traffic hotspots in order to see what the levels of pollution were. “So, for example I spent a whole afternoon walking around Birmingham looking for traffic hotspots – and I couldn’t find any. I thought I’d wasted my time. But when I got to the train station, the readings went off the scale because of all the diesel trains sitting there.

That was a real surprise,” says Woodford, who thinks that this type of casual observation would help others to understand. “You have all these assumptions about where pollution is, but you can’t quantify it. Whereas I could take readings, and I found it shocking. And the problem in some places is that even theoretically credible pieces of air-cleaning technology won’t be able to solve the problem. It’s that big.”

Woodford is optimistic that having studied the problem it can be solved. “I’ve looked at this in a logical way and I can see what the problems and solutions are, but you need political will and public pressure to create change. And so, I’m optimistic in that sense, but also pessimistic due to the scale of the problem.”

‘Breathless: Why Air Pollution Matters – and How it Affects You’ by Chris Woodford, Icon Books, £14.99

Extract

Take a deep breath

The history of air pollution includes plenty of denial that it was ever really a problem. Back in the 1880s, Chicago coal magnate Colonel W P Rend proudly boasted: ‘Smoke is the incense burning on the altars of industry. It’s beautiful to me... you can’t stop it.’

A century later, US President Ronald Reagan mounted a robust defence of the right to pollute in the name of economic progress: ‘Approximately 80 per cent of our air pollution comes from hydrocarbons released by vegetation, so let’s not go overboard in setting and enforcing tough emission standards from manmade sources.’

At best, that’s a non sequitur: Reagan was right that trees pollute, but wrong to conclude it grants us a licence to pollute as well. Trees can’t help themselves; we can. If money is your measure and you think pollution a price worth paying for progress, which is what Reagan was really arguing, you need to consider the World Bank’s finding that dirty air costs the planet $5tn a year, including $225bn in lost work days. That’s about a third of the total cost of the financial crash of 2008 each year. In the UK, pollution costs £6-50bn annually; in the US, estimates range from $45- 120bn. Globally, pollution chops 6 per cent off GDP – to put that in context, the world spends 2.2 per cent of GDP on defence and 4.8 per cent on education.

Reagan died of dementia – a progressive condition increasingly correlated with pollution. If Reagan had known that, would he still have defended the toxic clouds coughed out by cars and power plants? Supposing his dementia had anything to do with pollution, had it dulled his brain to an argument that might have helped save him? Are we all in the same leaky boat now?

Edited extract from ‘Breathless: Why Air Pollution Matters – and How it Affects You’ by Chris Woodford, reproduced with permission.

 

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