Air pollution, ill health and the need for a 21st-century Model T Ford


The Guardian, 23 May 2019:

The harmful effects of air pollution during early life deserve greater attention (Air pollution damages ‘every organ in the body’, 18 May). Ongoing research in the US has reported that exposure during pregnancy to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a constituent of diesel exhaust, is linked to developmental delay at three years, an IQ reduction of 4-5 points at five years, increased anxiety, depression and inattention at six to seven years, a reduction in surface white matter in the brain at eight years, and delayed self-regulatory behaviour which became most significant at 11 years. These data are “preliminary” only in the sense that they have not yet been replicated. Benzo-a-pyrene (BaP) is the only PAH routinely monitored by the EU. Due to the rapid growth in the sale of diesel vehicles since 2000, levels of BaP at traffic-monitoring sites has increased by 52%.

These findings have huge implications for public health, educational attainment and the high level of mental health problems currently afflicting schoolchildren in the UK. It is beyond belief that the government’s only response is a vague commitment to halve the number of people exposed to levels above the WHO limit for small particulates by 2025. This is not even a target; it is an aspiration that is legally unenforceable.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones Scientific adviser

Geraint Davies MP Chair, all-party parliamentary group on air pollution

Can we humans save ourselves from self-destruction?


The Guardian, 8 May 2019:

There is a strong case for dating the start of the Anthropocene to 1950, since which time a million species have become threatened; 1950 coincides with the growth of international travel, leading to the introduction of alien species into vulnerable populations which then collapse. Back in 1950, world population was one-third of its current level. A combination of antibiotics, vaccination programmes and ineffective family planning have seen human numbers rocket past 7 billion, and they are still rising. Finally the demands of humanity have led to deforestation and widespread loss of habitat in every part of the globe.

It is entirely appropriate that the UN and other institutions produce reports documenting the disappearance and decline of most species on Earth. But they will have no impact at all unless they are accompanied by measures to limit human numbers.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet


Dieselgate and the unintended consequences of anti-idling drive


The Guardian, 25 March 2019:

In the US, the Dieselgate scandal has resulted in prosecutions against VW personnel and multibillion dollar fines (Where’s there’s smoke…, 22 March). In Europe, no one has been charged and nobody has gone to jail, though the EU commission has threatened action against the UK government for failing to prosecute VW.

Defeat devices result in higher emissions of nitrogen dioxide, but the real danger from a health perspective are small particulates, notably the ultra-fine nanoparticles that can penetrate tissue, reach a placenta and cross the blood-brain barrier. These are largely present in exhaust emissions, so while all vehicles generate particulates from tyres and brakes, researchers have demonstrated that medical effects such as low birth weight are tied more closely to exhaust particulates than to friction particulates. This is important as the government likes to pretend that all particulates are equivalent, regardless of the source. Thus its clean air strategy emphasises the contribution of secondary particulates generated from agriculture etc, even though these contain little in the way of ultra-fine particles. It is disheartening that the UK government seems more anxious to protect the interests of car manufacturers than the health of its own citizens, but this situation is likely to worsen post-Brexit.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones Scientific adviser

Geraint Davies MP Chair, All-party parliamentary group on air pollution

Dirty air and babies


The Times, 15 March 2019:

Sir, One neglected aspect of air pollution is its effect on birth weight (“Air pollution kills more people than boasting about freezing the fuel smoking”, Mar 13). A meta-analysis of 32 studies linking birth outcomes with the level of small particulates (PM2.5) concluded that each increase of 10g/m3 in PM2.5 lowers birthweight by 16 grams. Living in central London while pregnant is thus equivalent to smoking one cigarette a day.

In 2017 researchers from King’s College London showed that reductions in birth weight were tied more closely to exhaust emissions than to other types of particulates generated by traffic (eg, wear and tear on brakes and tyres) and not at all to noise pollution. During the Olympic Sir, Alice Thomson (Comment, Mar Games in 2008, the Chinese government made every effort to reduce pollution levels in Beijing, and birth weight increased. The maximum benefit was for women in the eighth month of pregnancy, a period of maximum foetal growth.

Low birth weight is important because it is linked to a host of adverse outcomes in later life, including lower IQ. The British government could do far more to mitigate these effects. Instead of boasting about freezing the fue escalator for the past nine years, the chancellor should increase the tax on diesel, introduce a diesel scrappage scheme and bring forward the phase-out date for fossil fuel vehicles from 2040 to 2030.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones, FRCP, FRCPath, scientific adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution

Geraint Davies, MP
chairman, APPG on air pollution

Gas strategy in the UK is wrongheaded


The Guardian, 12 March 2019:

It is no surprise that the government’s strategy on fracking has been deemed unlawful (Fracking guidance illegally ignores climate change, 7 March). Gas may be more fuel efficient than coal when burnt, but shale gas is 95% methane, and methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. According to the IPCC it has a global warming potential (GWP) 85 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. Misleadingly, HMG have relied on an obsolete figure of 36 for the GWP of methane, dating back to 2013.

Methane levels plateaued in the late 1990s, but have started to increase again over the past decade and have now reached 1,900 parts per billion, against a pre-industrial level of 700. Fracking is the obvious culprit. Satellite data over the US has shown that methane leakage exceeds 5% of shale gas production, an observation that fits with more recent studies by Nasa showing that fossil fuels are the major contributor to the continuing rise in atmospheric methane.

Despite this evidence, the government’s energy strategy is to forge ahead with fracking while reducing environmental safeguards and providing tax incentives for its development. The government claim that gas is better than coal from a climate change perspective is only sustainable if fugitive emissions of methane are ignored. Let us hope that the high court judgment means that fracking will be abandoned in the UK as it has been elsewhere in Europe.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones Scientific adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution (APPG)
Geraint Davies MP Chair, APPG


More renewables please


The Observer, 27 January 2019:

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy must take most of the blame for our terminally confused energy policy (“The Hitachi fiasco confirms that our energy policy now lies in ruins”, Leader). In February 2018, the government stated in its 25-year plan for the environment: “We will take all possible action to mitigate climate change while adapting to reduce its impact”, while the BEIS was promoting the use of fossil fuels through the development of a domestic shale gas industry.

The government has also scrapped its carbon capture research programme and abandoned zero-carbon homes. Since February last year, Claire Perry, the minister responsible for renewables, has ditched the tidal barrage in Swansea Bay, discontinued the feed-in tariff for solar power and reduced the subsidy for electric vehicles.

Your leader doubts the ability of renewables to power the UK, but that is precisely what is required by the Paris agreement and our 2008 Climate Change Act. Decarbonisation would happen much quicker if the government removed the obstacles it has placed in the way of onshore wind and reversed its current energy policy.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones, chair, Help Rescue the Planet
Marlow, Bucks

Nuclear energy is key to our future


The Guardian, 18 November 2018:

Opposition to nuclear power in the UK has largely focused on the risks of an accident and the enormous cost of waste disposal, officially running at more than £100bn. Also, high-quality uranium ore is in short supply, and can only supply the world’s existing reactors for another 50 years. After that the energy required to extract fissile material from low-quality ore will exceed the energy produced, at which point the technology becomes unsustainable.

Recently, the chancellor admitted that he had delayed crucial legislation under pressure from the gambling industry. The only way to rationalise the UK’s chaotic energy policy is to accept that the nuclear and fracking industries have better lobbyists than the renewable sector.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones, chair, Help Rescue the Planet
Marlow, Buckinghamshire

India has no strategy for improving air quality


Financial Times, 15 November 2018:

Air pollution in India illustrates the consequences of unregulated growth (“ How to power India”, The Big Read, November 5). Of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 14 are located in India. In Delhi the level of small particulates (PM2.5) averages 143 microgrammes per cubic metre of air (the annual World Health Organization limit is 10). At this time of year, stubble burning by farmers produces peak levels up to 1000, equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes a day. Such levels render Indian cities unfit for human habitation and particularly dangerous for pregnant women. Studies in Delhi have demonstrated that each 10 microgramme increase in the level of PM 2.5 decreases birth weight by 4 grams. As with smoking low birth weight results in lower IQ.

The tragedy is that no one wishes to accept responsibility. Unlike China, politicians in India have no strategy for improving air quality, and local politicians have no interest. In September the Ramphal Commonwealth Institute organised an international conference on Toxic Air and Megacities, but no delegate from the State of Delhi was willing to participate.

India seems equally oblivious to the dangers of climate change. Why would a country with up to 3000 hours of sunshine annually continue to rely on fossil fuels for 90 per cent of its energy? Prime minister Narendra Modi’s version of nationalism does not seem to include any concern for the health of the population, nor for the prospects of future generations.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Marlow, Bucks, UK, Former Chair, Campaign for Lead Free Air

Frack and ruin


The Observer, 14 October 2018:

Why is it so difficult for the Observer to make up its mind about fracking (“Fracking fissures obscure the need to embrace green technologies”, leader)? Shale gas is a climate-changing fossil fuel, yet you claim the environmental impact of fracking is “unproved”.

It is true that gas produces less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal, but this is offset by the rapid rise in atmospheric methane largely attributable to increased gas production globally and the cavalier attitude to fracking in North America.

The second problem is timing. It has taken seven years for Cuadrilla to resume drilling and it will probably take another 10 to 15 before gas is being produced in commercial quantities and even that will depend on government support. So shale gas will come on stream at the same time as the UK is scheduled to decarbonise its electricity supply; in other words it will be displacing renewables, not replacing coal.

Fracking is being foisted on local communities by a business-friendly, environmentally illiterate government.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet
Marlow, Bucks