Finding a solution to pollution

sunday times

Sunday Times, 5 February 2017:

Most of the carnage inflicted by Trump since he took office can be reversed when he leaves; the exception is climate change, since failure to mitigate global warming today will probably result in irreversible changes tomorrow. Trump’s solution is to ban any discussion of global warming when he meets the royal family, even though the future of humanity is under threat. He needs to recognise that there is not a single reputable scientific journal, or a single national scientific institute, that does not accept that global warming is man-made and getting worse. His behaviour is that of an autocrat in denial.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones,

Help Rescue the Planet


Known risks

sunday times

Sunday Times, 1 January 2017:

Cavendish says the 20% of lung cancers that occur in non-smokers is “sheer bad luck”. According to Cancer Research UK, exposure to radon gas – for example, in houses built over granite accounts for about 5% of the 36,000 annual lung cancer deaths. However, the biggest cause after Smoking is outdoor air pollution, which is behind more than 2,300 respiratory and lung cancer deaths every year, according to a recent joint report by two medical royal colleges. So it is bad luck if you live or work in an urban environment heavily polluted by diesel emissions and nobody informed you of the risks.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones

Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Dirty Diesel: Cities and citizens choke while the government looks the other way



British Medical Journal editorial, 27 December 2016:

In the 19th century, John Snow correctly identified the Broad Street pump as the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho, but a subsequent inquiry by the Board of Health decided that there was no reason to act. [1]

The response of the UK government to air pollution displays a similar lack of foresight. The main problem is diesel. Not only do we have a legacy of dirty lorries, buses, and taxis; the UK, along with much of Europe, has tragically adopted diesel as the main fuel for private cars. Before 2000 less than 10% of new cars sold in the UK were diesel. Now the figure is over 50%. Furthermore the amount of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emitted by most diesel cars on the road is 4-5 times the EU limits allowed in laboratory tests. Illegal defeat devices installed by Volkswagen enabled NO2 emissions up to 40 times the EU limit.

For the past six years, the UK government has refused to implement the 2008 EU Air Quality Directive on the grounds that EU directives can be implemented by individual countries when convenient. However, the law does not recognise this defence, and the directive stipulates clearly defined limits as well as deadlines for compliance. For NO2, the annual limit is 40 µg/m3 of air. The compliance date was the now distant 1 January 2010.

Thanks to our reliance on diesel, nowhere in central London or most other large UK cities complies with the EU standard for NO2. Thus, in 2012, the environmental advocacy group ClientEarth sued the government. The case finally reached the Supreme Court in 2015, which found against the government and ordered it to produce an effective action plan. The government failed to do so and has now been ordered to remedy the situation by 2020 [2].

This judgment is momentous, not least because the EU commission can impose swingeing fines on the government if it fails to comply, a scenario that will doubtless foment demands for an early Brexit. However, it is the public who will suffer most if the government evades its public health responsibilities.

Air pollution is now one of the main causes of premature death in the UK, second only to smoking, with 29,000 deaths attributed to particulates and 23,500 to NO2.[3][4] In February 2016, a joint report by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health estimated that there are 40,000 deaths annually from outdoor air pollution in the UK and identified multiple medical conditions associated with higher exposure to particulates, ozone, and NO2. These include heart disease, stroke, lung disease (including cancer), diabetes, obesity, and dementia.[5]  The cost to the NHS was over £20bn annually; yet the then chancellor, George Osborne, did not even refer to this report when announcing that there would be no increased tax on diesel fuel in the March 2016 budget.

The royal colleges’ report also identified neuropsychological effects from exposure to small particulates (PM2.5) and ultrafine particulates (0.1 µm), which can cross the placental and the blood-brain barriers. Some studies have shown an IQ deficit of 4 points in more highly exposed children.[6] Since these effects have no threshold, they represent a re-run of the neurocognitive deficit identified in the late 1970s from exposure to lead.[7] [8] There are many similarities between the campaign to remove lead from petrol in the 80s and the current uproar over diesel. One big difference is that campaigners now have the support of the medical profession in the UK.

Further evidence has recently emerged linking maternal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and mental health problems in children of primary school age.[9] [10]

Again diesel exhausts are the main source. One of these studies was in non-smoking mothers in New York [9] and is of particular concern to the UK, where the proportion of diesel cars is much higher than in the US and the current epidemic of mental health problems among children remains largely unexplained. Further research is urgently needed. Currently there are no EU limits for PAHs, though benzo[a]pyrene is monitored because of its carcinogenic potential. In 2015, 88% of the urban population in the EU was exposed to levels of benzo[a]pyrene above the World Health Organization limit of 0.12 ng/m. [3] [11]

The extent to which car manufacturers have been allowed to damage public health in Europe and the UK is scandalous. A new Clean Air Bill is currently making its way through parliament, piloted by the Labour MP Geraint Davies. This bill deserves to be supported by everyone with an interest in the health of the nation.

The quickest and most effective way out of our current predicament is to follow the lead of other European capitals and announce a date by which diesel cars will be banned from city centres. Secondly, the government needs to ramp up the cost of diesel until usage falls substantially and drivers choose the clean methods of transport which our political leaders could and should have championed 20 years ago.[12]


Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that I am on the board of Ebsworth Enterprises, a limited company dedicated to developing and funding environmental technologies. I was involved with CLEAR the Campaign for Lead Free Air from 1981 to 1989.

Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

1 Summers J. Soho—A history of London’s most colourful neighbourhood. Bloomsbury,

2 ClientEarth wins air pollution case in High Court, 2 Nov 2016.

3 Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. COMEAP 2010: mortality effects of long term exposure to particulate air pollution in the UK. 2010. government/publications/comeap-mortality-effects-of-long-term-exposure-to-particulateair-pollution-in-the-uk

4 DEFRA. Draft plans to improve air quality in the UK. Tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities. UK overview document. Defra, 2015.

5 Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Every breath we take. RCP, RCPCH, 2016.

6 Perera F, Weiland K, Neidell M, Wang S. Prenatal exposure to airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and IQ: estimated benefit of pollution reduction. J Public Health Policy 2014;35:327-36. doi:10.1057/jphp.2014.14 pmid:24804951.

7 Needleman HL, Gunnoe C, Leviton A, et al. Deficits in psychologic and classroom performance of children with elevated dentine lead levels. N Engl J Med 1979;300:689-95. doi:10.1056/NEJM197903293001301 pmid:763299.

8 Canfield RL, Henderson CR Jr, , Cory-Slechta DA, Cox C, Jusko TA, Lanphear BP. Intellectual impairment in children with blood lead concentrations below 10 microg per deciliter. N Engl J Med 2003;348:1517-26. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa022848 pmid:12700371.

9 Margolis AE, Herbstman JB, Davis KS, et al. Longitudinal effects of prenatal exposure to air pollutants on self-regulatory capacities and social competence. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 2016;57:851-60. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12548 pmid:26989990.

10 Peterson BS, Rauh VA, Bansal R, et al. Effects of prenatal exposure to air pollutants (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) on the development of brain white matter, cognition, and behavior in later childhood. JAMA Psychiatry 2015;72:531-40. doi:10.1001/ jamapsychiatry.2015.57 pmid:25807066.

11 European Environment Agency. Air quality in Europe—2016 report. EEA report No 28/2016. EEA, 2016.

12 Russell-Jones R. A toxic agenda. Science and Technology 2016;21:194-7. http://www.



Silence on climate change




The Observer, 27 November 2016:

The key element missing from Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the emotional force of Trump’s campaign, plus any hope for the future of the planet (“The shock lessons for liberals from Brexit and the Trumpquake”, Comment). Thanks to TV programmes about the natural world, of which Planet Earth II is a shining example, the public is well aware of the dangers of global warming, even if David Attenborough is prohibited by the BBC from uttering the words “climate change”.

In the same vein, global warming did not feature in the Brexit debate or the US presidential election, even though Trump’s position – that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese – is absurd. Although Trump is a major climate change denier, most politicians, like much of the media, are in the minor denial camp. They take the view that it is happening, but now is not the time to deal with it as it is going to upset voters or persuade viewers to switch off.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet
Stoke Poges


Tax on toxic diesels


Times, 5 November 2016:

Sir, The judgment against the government on air pollution is momentous (“Drivers of toxic diesels must pay to enter cities”, Nov 3). Not only does it spell the end of a filthy fossil fuel, it also demonstrates the vulnerability of the government’s plans for Heathrow to legal challenge. The most likely government response is to extend clean emission zones, but studies in the UK have shown no improvement in the lung function of children before and after the introduction of such schemes. Far more effective is to increase the tax on diesel to a level where drivers opt for genuinely clean alternatives.


Former chairman, Campaign for Lead-Free Air, Stoke Poges, Bucks

Global summit to strike deal on phase-out of HFCs


The Guardian:

Governments will address the law of unintended consequences when they meet this week to revise a global treaty and try to eliminate the use of a group of greenhouse gases used in fridges, inhalers and air conditioners.

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were hailed as the answer to the hole in the ozone layer which appeared over Antarctica in the 1980s because they replaced hundreds of chemical substances widely used in aerosols which depleted the thin layer of ozone which protects the Earth from harmful rays of the sun.

One hundred and ninety-seven countries signed the historic 1987 agreement which phased out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and similar hydrochlorofluoro carbons (HCFCs) and has seen gradual closure of the two polar ozone holes.

But concern has been mounting at how their substitute is undermining the landmark Paris climate agreement and could hamper attempts to keep global warming below dangerous levels.

“The use of hydrofluorocarbons is growing. Already, the HFCs used in refrigerators, air conditioners, inhalers … are emitting a gigaton of CO2-equivalent pollution into the atmosphere annually. If that sounds like a lot; it is. It’s equivalent to the emissions from nearly 300 coal-fired power plants every single year,” the US secretary of state, John Kerry, told a UN meeting on the Montreal protocol earlier this year…

…“It is in everyone’s interests to phase out HFCs as soon as possible,” said Gaby Drinkwater, Christian Aid’s policy officer. “As people in developing countries seek more air conditioners and refrigerators, a heavy expansion of HFCs could deal a significant blow to the ambition of the Paris agreement and set back any progress made on keeping global warming to 2C.”

However, environmentalists with a long memory say that governments could have easily avoided the release of tens of billions of tons of HFC chemicals if they had listened to scientists in the 1980s.

“HFCs were always known to have the potential to increase global warming. We solved the ozone problem of ozone but governments chose not to address the climate-changing potential of their substitutes even though they knew about it,” said Dr Robin Russell-Jones, former director of the skin tumour unit at the St John’s Institute of Dermatology in London.

“If it takes over a quarter of a century to fix a simple technological problem, then what chance is there for the world community to solve global warming?” he added.

In 1989, he wrote in one of Britain’s leading medical journals, the Lancet: “Most scientists want to see the Montreal protocol widened to include substitutes like HCFC22. If uncontrolled [they] will be adding 15% to the global warming effect of carbon dioxide by the year 2030.”

My emphasis.

Airport expansion’s disastrous effects, near and far


The Guardian, 24 October 2016:

Nigel Milton appears to be living in a parallel universe. Under current EU legislation, it is impossible to give the go-ahead for a third runway without an avalanche of legal challenges. Heathrow breaches the EU air quality directive for a number of pollutants, but nitrogen dioxide is the most intractable as local traffic and congestion is bound to increase in line with passenger numbers. The strategy being adopted by Heathrow management depends upon new diesel engines emitting less pollutants than current models, but this strategy is doomed to failure as recent studies demonstrate that even Euro 6 diesel engines emit much more NO2 on the road than they do in lab testing.

I suspect the reason that Theresa May has delayed a parliamentary vote on Heathrow (Report, 19 October) is to give the UK parliament time to invoke article 50, and repeal the relevant EU air quality directive. However, the chances of such a manoeuvre getting past the House of Lords is close to zero.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue The Planet


The Zuckerberg billions could be put to better use



Financial Times, 29 September 2016:

The solution to most preventable diseases is obvious and does not require a century of research (“Mark Zuckerberg pledges $3bn ‘to end all illness’ ”,, September 22).

Of the 56m deaths that occur annually, 6m are linked to smoking, 4.3m to indoor and 3.7m to outdoor air pollution, so the solution to almost one quarter of all deaths is education.

Next come alcohol-related deaths (3.3m), obesity (2.8m) HIV/Aids (1.5m), diarrhoea (1.5m) and road fatalities (1.3m). Of these, the first, second and fifth are self-inflicted, while the other two are eminently preventable. Warfare is a diminishing cause of mortality, having fallen from 24 per 100,000 of the population in 1950 to less than one in this century, which equates to fewer than 70,000 deaths per annum.

Mr Zuckerberg’s boastful commitment may of course be referring to the hundreds of genetic conditions that affect children, or the myriad types of cancer that afflict adults, but if that is his intent, then he and his paediatrician wife are deluding themselves. Far better to spend the money on new ways to mitigate climate change, as unchecked global warming will release the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, whose victims will be measured, not in millions, but in billions.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet,
Stoke Poges, Bucks, UK