London’s toxic air is ‘a public health emergency’ says charity

London’s polluted atmosphere, with Croydon among the worst affected, has the same impact as smoking 150 cigarettes each year

The health of Croydon residents is are among the worst affected by pollution, according to research conducted for City Hall, with BAME communities and the elderly particularly at risk

Toxic air quality in Croydon increases the risk of death in the same way as smoking 150 cigarettes a year and should be declared “a public health emergency”, according to the British Heart Foundation.

The capital’s poor air quality contributed to the deaths of more than 4,000 Londoners in 2019, according to research conducted by Imperial College’s Environmental Research Group. Croydon, with nearly 200 deaths attributable to the effects of pollution, is listed by the researchers among London boroughs with the highest number of pollution-related deaths.

The study, which was commissioned by City Hall, also revealed that Londoners from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities were exposed to the highest levels of air pollution.

According to the research, only 1 per cent of London meets World Health Organization limits for PM2.5 – the fine particulate pollution, mostly from motor vehicles, but also from waste incinerators, which can get into the deep parts of a person’s lungs, and has even been found in people’s blood system.

There is a growing consensus that the WHO limits should be included in the Environment Bill as a legally binding target to be met by 2030.

One of the Imperial College tables, showing deaths to Londoners attributable to toxic air

“We know that London’s toxic air kills,” said Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London.

“The report is a stark reminder that air pollution in our city still represents a public health crisis and urgent action is needed. It’s clear that pollution isn’t just a central London problem, which is why I am committed to expanding the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone in October this year.”

The Imperial College report states, “In 2019, in Greater London, the equivalent of between 3,600 to 4,100 deaths (61,800 to 70,200 life years lost) were estimated to be attributable to human-made PM2.5 and NO2, considering that health effects exist even at very low levels. This calculation is for deaths from all causes. including respiratory, lung cancer and cardiovascular deaths.”

And the researchers explain that the reason that outer London boroughs, such as Croydon, are more badly affected by the impact of poor air quality was “mainly due to the higher proportion of the elderly in these areas”.

The incinerator at Beddington, polluting south London’s air since 2018

The researchers said that air pollution contributed to 196 deaths in Croydon in 2019 – 8.3 deaths per 100,000 population, the eighth-highest among all London’s boroughs.

The findings, when compared to previous work in this area of study, should be deeply concerning for all decision-makers in the capital, since they suggest no real significant improvement in the air quality and its impact on health in south London over the past decade.

A previous scientific paper predicted 205 deaths per year in Croydon attributable to the effects of air pollution. That paper was published in 2010.

The British Heart Foundation is among those that want the Government to introduce tougher WHO air pollution limits. EU limits for PM2.5 are 25 micrograms per cubic metre. WHO’s limits are tougher – at 10 micrograms per cubic metre.

The BHF said PM2.5 can have a “seriously detrimental effect to heart health”, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke and making existing health problems worse.

BHF’s Jacob West said, “Air pollution is a major public health emergency and over many years it has not been treated with the seriousness it deserves.

“Unless we take radical measures now to curb air pollution, in the future we will look back on this period of inaction with shame.

“We have no choice over the air we breathe in the places we live. Legislation was passed over a decade ago to protect people from passive smoke, and similarly decisive must be taken to protect people from air pollution.”

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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5 Responses to London’s toxic air is ‘a public health emergency’ says charity

  1. Diana Pinnell says:

    Born in Croydon in 1952 and living there most of my life, I remember many smog seasons when we couldn’t see a thing on the way home from school. I wonder whether this has affected the ability of my age group to resist Covid 19. I also recall the Clean Air Acts and Smokeless Zones which included Croydon. These necessitated installation of a gas poker to light a smokeless fuel fire and then a gas fire replaced the open grate until gas bolilers and radiators became affordable. If all this had any effect, what has changed? Is it just the volume of slow-moving, stopping and starting motor vehicles? What is the contribution of log burning stoves illuminated by unseasoned and unsuitable firewood?

  2. Lewis White says:

    At last ! Imperial College, British Heart Foundation and the GLA and Mayor Sadiq Kahn all need our profound thanks for confirming what most people know instinctievly– air pollution shortens lives and kills prematurely.

    I experienced fewer smogs than Diana Pinell, as I lived on the rural fringe to the South of Croydon, but do remember a very thick fog which I guess was the last proper “smog”. Then, as she says, smokeless coals were introduced. It was nice for everyone but the people in coal mining areas of Wales, Northern England and Scotland who lived next door to the smoke-belching works that burned coal to make smokeless coals–a massively polluting process, which reflects on the fact that better conditions for some privileged people often means pollution for many more people elsewhere. As she alludes to, one person’s cozy woodburning stove might mean an asthma attack for someone up the street, at its local level.

    It seems deeply ironic that only a few short years ago, Boris Johnson as London Mayor gave final approval to the Beddington Incinerator. OK, he was on his summer hols at the time, so it fell to a deputy to sign it off, as I recall. I’m not blaming Bo Jo here, entirely, as the 4 boroughs of the South Waste… sorry– South West London Waste Partnership were sleepwalking with open eyes into the decision to allow incineration in Beddington, conveniently next to the infilled landfill, once a low-lying marsh, now a mountain of waste.

    Government, whether national and local, has had years to sort out recyclng and waste minimisation, as well as finding best ways of disposal, but by and large, the grossly land-and-water-polluting “land-fill” has given way to the seriouslly-air-polluting “incineration”. I forgot that landfill also gives off air polluting methane, which can be flared off, but that happens to add to global warming.

    In recent years, there have been some good advances, such as mechanical/ biological treatment at Southwark Council’s Old Kent Road works, and there may be others around the UK.

    The response to smog, which was a highly visible manifestation of pollution caused by burning of coal, took about 100 years from the start of smogs to the end. Vehicle smogs –common in Los Angeles, and visible in the skies over West and East London, are a reality, but most of vehicle pollution is far less visible. Out of sight, out of mind. When vehicles powered by the infernal / internal combustion engine reached big numbers, it must have been around 1935, so maybe, the welcome Government announcement that all new cars sold shall be electric-powered in the UK by 2035 also refects a 100 year timescale from start of problem to solution. This should radically reduce air pollution in Croydon and other pollution hotspots.

    In the mean time, very locally, we have the outrageous decision by the current council just a few years ago to give planning permission to a Primary School bang on the side of Waddon’s Purley Way, where air pollution (dust as well as NO2, Carbon monoxide, CO 2 and other nasty gasses) pours off the traffic-choked main A road, plus a legacy of other 1970’s schools next to the flyover. Time will tell as to the health effects on the adults who the children become. Schools should be built well away from main roads, and should have large green playing fields with real trees, not yards enclosed by walls with murals of rain forests.

    Air conditioning has to be provided to scrub out some of the pollutants, and small tarmac yards are deemed to be good enough to allow sufficient “outdoor space”. Sorry, if that is good planning, that is crap .

    It is more than overdue….. the UK Government shouid be treating pollution as an enemy, no an inconvenience. As to the role of the Environment Agency ? Is that guardian of the environment now reduced to a cash-starved lapdog that has to do the bidding of national and local government high-ups who plays golf with the big Corp CEO’s of major polluters and waste “processors?”

    Waste minimsation, particularly the removal of as much plastic as possible from packaging, must be a top priority in my view, for ALL political parties.

    The people of Bedington, Waddon, West Croydon and even Central Croydon have to breathe the stench of burning plastic on a random basis, depending on which way the wind blows. It tends not to blow West or South into the leafy suburbs of Cheam, Coulsdon, Wimbledon, or Kingston.

    No, they should be able to wake up, throw open the wndows, and smell the neighbours’ coffee, not Beddington’s aroma of burning plastic and lung-gripping, asthma-inducing nasties .

    It’s not fair.

    • Dan Maertens says:

      Or the ‘Beddington stink’ from Thames Water’s Sewage Treatment Works next door, whose ‘odour mitigation’ works still haven’t entirely solved the ‘problem’.

      • Lewis White says:

        That reminds me about the Victorians’ decision to curtail another type of pollution – pollution of the Thames with untreated sewage.

        It took “The 1858 Great Stink” of the putrefying river right next to the Houses of Parliament for Government to decide (and pay for) the building of the Bazalgette project for a trunk sewer on both banks of the Thames, down to Becton and Crossness, where it was still dumped untreated into the Thames. Some decades later, treatment plants were built in both places.

        Beddington has the treatment works, but unfortunately not the presence of the national seat of Government, with MP’s who might just decide to do something about the “Beddington Stink” .

        It would be nice if someone also did something about periodic overflowing of raw sewage intio the Wandle from the same treatment plant. I spotted a blog link in Inside Croydon showing a picture of this at Goat Bridge Mitcham only last week.

        It would be great if Inside Croydon could get that blogger to do an article about the problem.

        A new park, with no sewage in tne Wandle, no Beddington “Stinks” (sewage and incinerator) would be somewhat pleasant.

  3. Grace Onions says:

    Yes. What Lewis said. All of it.

    Also, it’s a bit odd to say that “Londoners from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities were exposed to the highest levels of air pollution”. As far as I know, air pollution can’t pick on individual people or races – it’s there for everyone to breathe in at the same time. It may be more accurate to indicate particular geographical areas with concentrated populations from particular cultures.

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