Battle to clean up the air we breathe


The Guardian, 1 September 2018:

The link between cognitive performance and air pollution is very worrying but not surprising (High pollution levels ‘causing huge reduction in intelligence’, 28 August). The report by the Royal College of Physicians in 2016 drew a link between air pollution and dementia in the elderly and reduced cognitive performance in children. This recent study from China indicates that teenagers and adults are also affected.

We don’t know how these effects are mediated, but with neurotoxins such as lead the most critical period of exposure is likely to be during pregnancy. A study undertaken in New York of non-smoking mothers showed strong associations with foetal exposure to particulates and subsequent mental health problems in those children at primary school age. These problems included anxiety, depression and ADHD. This has momentous implications for public health. We are suffering an epidemic of mental health problems among British schoolchildren which the medical profession is unable to explain. There is an urgent need for further research in this area, but I am not aware of any study in the UK that addresses this problem.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Former chair, Campaign for Lead Free Air


Our wildlife can be saved – but only with political will


The Guardian, 28 March 2018:

Michael McCarthy is absolutely right to underline how little attention has been paid to the catastrophic loss of insect populations and farmland birds over the past 50 years, but this is part of a general trend that is accelerating.

The three main factors driving species loss are climate change, loss of habitat, and the introduction of alien species into vulnerable populations. The rate of loss for all species is currently 1,000 times higher than normal, with half of all amphibians, a third of all corals, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all plant species and a sixth of birds under threat of extinction.

Of course Homo sapiens is just another species that will disappear along with all the rest. If we lack the intelligence or the motivation to stop this process, we probably don’t deserve the description of sapiens.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue The Planet

The budget should address cuts and chronic underfunding – before it’s too late


The Guardian, 6 March 2016:

Dieselgate has been described as one of the greatest public health scandals in living memory; and last week researchers at MIT estimated an extra 1,200 deaths from the use of VW’s defeat devices just in Germany. The equivalent figure for the EU is around 5,000. Yet there is no indication that the chancellor has any plans to protect the public from the reckless and illegal policies adopted by car manufacturers (Opinion, 6 March). If the government increased fuel duty and vehicle excise duty for diesel cars, then the monies could be used to invest in non-polluting technologies, and the UK could become a world leader in clean energy and green transport. Instead we have an administration that rivals President Trump in its addiction to fossil fuels.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Ex-chair, Campaign for Lead Free Air, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

How to win the war on air pollution


The Guardian, 19 February 2017:

Air pollution is not just a London problem (Editorial, 17 February). Of the 43 zones currently monitored in the UK, 38 fail EU standards for NO2, so any strategy has to be nationwide and not left to individual councils.

The most likely government response is an extension of clean air zones, but there are serious doubts as to whether this will improve public health. First, designating certain areas as clean does nothing to reduce total emissions; it merely diverts them elsewhere. Second, the health effects of NO2 and particulates are without threshold, so reducing levels below an arbitrary limit may make sense politically, but will have little effect biologically. Third, the projected improvement in air quality is predicated upon new vehicles producing less NO2 in line with stricter EU vehicle emission tests, but we already know that emissions of NO2 “on the road” are four to five times greater than in laboratory tests, a discrepancy that even applies to the latest Euro 6 engines. Finally, studies of London schoolchildren showed no improvement in lung function after three years living in a low-emission zone.

As your leader proposes, we are in urgent need of a new Clean Air Act that hastens the demise of diesel and other highly polluting technologies, something the government could and should have championed more than 20 years ago.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Former chair CLEAR, Campaign for Lead Free Air, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire


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.

Hinkley Point review gives UK golden opportunity


The Guardian, 29 July 2016:

Energy conservation and renewables are the only possible solution to the world’s energy problems and the need to move as fast as possible to a low-carbon economy (Hinkley Point deal delayed by minsters, 29 July). Sadly, the UK has been rowing in the opposite direction by rigging the market in favour of shale gas. We can only hope that George Osborne’s irrational hostility towards renewables will now be abandoned by the new “green team” of Greg Clark, Jo Johnson and Nick Hurd at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). As a matter of urgency, they need to scrap HS2 and use the money on a European supergrid in order to iron out fluctuations from different sources of renewable energy. We need not only a new green deal, but huge investment in local microgeneration projects. And, if the government insists on going down the nuclear route, it should develop small modular reactors and locate them on ships not land, as shipping contributes 4.5% of carbon emissions world-wide and this is set to increase 30% by 2020.

Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet

Pressure mounts over ‘suppression’ of UK fracking impacts report


The Guardian, 14 June 2016:

Pressure has been growing as the delay has lengthened. Letter-writers to the Guardian have called for publication, and a petition by pressure group 38 Degrees has more than 124,000 signatures.

Robin Russell-Jones, a long-time environmental activist who submitted scientific research to the report showing that methane emissions from fracking were worse than those of coal and that methane was rising because of fracking, wrote to the Guardian: “It would be highly embarrassing for the government if its dash for gas was found to be incompatible with our climate change commitments, agreed by the UN. Embarrassing unless the government accepted the scientific case and announced it was going to abandon fracking and invest in renewables.”

Green campaigners told the Guardian that further delay was indefensible.

“When it comes to fracking this government is about as transparent as a brick wall with no windows,” said Daisy Sands, head of energy at Greenpeace UK. “The impact of fracking on climate change is a major concern for many people. The prime minister who once promised ‘a revolution in transparency’ should release this report and give people a chance to make up their own minds.”

Vanessa Vine, of Frack-Free Sussex, who helped to organise protests against oil exploration in Balcombe, said: “It speaks volumes that this report is being withheld.”

A spokesperson for Decc said: “The Infrastructure Act clearly requires Government to consider the CCC report properly before responding, and that is what is happening. As such, if we had laid the CCC’s report before parliament as soon as we received it we would not have met our legal requirements. We are carefully looking at this report to ensure it is given the proper consideration it is due. It will be published as soon as that process is complete.”

What happened to the UK shale gas report?


The Guardian, 7 June 2016:

Janet Russell asks the right question (Letters, May 30). What has happened to the report on shale gas by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC)? When Professor Cowern and I gave evidence in February, we were assured that the report would be published no later than May. We have also been told unofficially that the CCC has accepted our data on fugitive emissions of methane and that shale gas is two times worse than coal from a climate change perspective. We also submitted a further paper towards the end of March, indicating that over half of the rise in atmospheric levels of methane seen globally since 2007 is due to oil and gas, notably shale extraction in the US, and that this is obscuring the rise in methane emissions from the Arctic. I suppose it would be highly embarrassing for the government if its “dash for gas” was found to be incompatible with our climate change commitments, agreed by the UN but implemented via EU legislation. Embarrassing unless the government accepted the scientific case and announced it was going to abandon fracking and invest in renewables.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

TTIP In or out, TTIP is a threat to democracy


The Guardian, 3 March 2016:

I can understand why Unite is concentrating on the NHS, which it hopes will be exempt from TTIP, but the implications go far wider (Report, 22 February). Few commentators seem aware of the negative effect of TTIP on our ability to tackle climate change. Suppose in 10 to 15 years that several fracking firms were operating in the UK and the government decided the continued extraction of shale gas or shale oil were incompatible with our climate change commitments. Under TTIP, those companies could sue the British government and the result would either be massive compensation or the repeal of the UK’s Climate Change Act. The decision will not be taken by politicians, but by unaccountable lawyers meeting in secret and applying the terms of the trade deal.

It is significant that Cameron and leaders of the out campaign are united in their admiration for TTIP, but fail to appreciate that it will involve a huge transfer of sovereignty to unaccountable officials. EU plus TTIP will persuade a lot of voters to leave. Cameron needs to look again at this dreadful piece of legislation.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Boris Johnson and London’s toxic air

The Guardian, 1 March 2016:

Your editorial underlines the indifference of the mayor of London to air pollution which, according to the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, causes 40,000 premature deaths annually in the UK. But there are equally serious effects at the other end of life.

Small particulates (PM2.5) can cross the placental barrier and are associated with a number of negative outcomes including low birth weight. The WHO limit for small particulate is 25 micrograms per cubic metre of air, a level that is regularly exceeded in most UK cities. However, foetal effects are without threshold and are seen at levels below 25 micrograms.

It is not just the overall weight that is affected. Brain development is also compromised, and several studies link exposure to particulates, and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) to delayed neurocognitive development and lower IQ (See pages 34-41 of the RCP report).

Toxic metals like lead and small particulates like PM2.5 can cross the placental barrier, designed to protect the unborn foetus from harm. Our negligence has resulted in the replacement of one potent neurotoxin, lead, with another, PM2.5, derived almost exclusively in places like London from diesel-powered vehicles. It is equally dangerous, equally insidious and equally deserving of a total ban.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
(Former chair, Campaign for Lead-Free Air)
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire