Ahead of World Environment Day tomorrow, Steve Dyke tells us why we should all be more worried about the levels of air pollution in Medway..
I think it is a reasonable guess that many reading this will not have heard of ‘World Environment Day’, coming up on June 5th. This United Nations led event, held annually since 1974, is intended to encourage both global awareness of our environment and action being taken to protect it. The idea is that people commit to doing something to help take care of our planet, either individually or as part of a group. Each year thousands of related organised activities take place all over the world. Sadly so far I have found no evidence of Medway Council promoting it or seen any advertised public events linked to it taking place locally.
Each World Environment Day has a different theme. In recent years these have included such varied things as biodiversity, the illegal trade in wildlife, plastic pollution and food wastage. This time it is air pollution (#WorldEnvironmentDay #BeatAirPollution #MaskChallenge).
Air pollution is a silent killer, estimated to result in the premature death of around 7 million people worldwide each year, including 50,000 in the UK. As part of World Environment Day the UN will urge governments, industry, communities and individuals to get together and explore green technologies and renewable energy and to work to improve air quality around the world.
While air pollution is usually linked to respiratory conditions, a recent review by the Forum of International Respiratory Societies’ Environmental Committee shows that by causing problems in the lungs, pollutants can start a chain of biological events which can damage many other organs in the human body too. In addition, ultrafine pollutant particles can be easily picked up by cells and carried around the body by the bloodstream. As a result air pollution could be linked to other conditions such as diabetes, dementia, liver problems, cancer, miscarriages and reduced fertility.
The pollutants come from a number of human sources, such as the fuels burnt to cook, heat and light homes, energy production, industrial processes, transport emissions, waste burning and landfill. Most UK urban areas have illegal levels of pollutants.
The UK Government has established a national air quality strategy that establishes ‘statutory objectives’ (in other words, standards) for certain pollutants, including carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter. Because it is a statutory requirement under legislation, Medway Council undertakes monitoring of air quality in the area in order to identify local sources of air pollution. They compare pollutant levels measured at a number of monitoring stations across the Towns (or predicted from that data) with the national air quality objectives/standards. The raw monitoring data and the Council’s annual air pollution status reports can be found on a dedicated website, which also gives information about air quality throughout Kent as a whole.
As a result of this regular monitoring, it has been established that while most pollutants locally are within legal levels, there is a problem with nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in certain areas of the Medway Towns. Chronic exposure to NO2 can cause respiratory effects including airway inflammation in healthy people and increased respiratory symptoms in people with asthma.
The Council’s ‘Medway Air Quality Action Plan’, published in 2015, established three Air Quality Management Areas (‘AQMA’), where NO2 concentrations exceeded the statutory limits (the Plan can be downloaded from the Medway Council website). In these areas the Council must take action to improve the air quality and bring it back to legal levels. The three designated at the time were:
- Central Medway (broadly along the A2 from Strood High Street to Chatham Hill/Luton);
- Pier Road, Gillingham; and
- High Street, Rainham.
A fourth AQMA was added in 2017 at Four Elms Hill, Chattenden.
The most recent Annual Status Report published in June 2018 confirmed that NO2 levels continue to exceed the standard at some locations within all AQMAs. It is also important to note that while it is only NO2 levels that have led to the identification of AQMAs in Medway, this does not mean the air we breathe here is otherwise good. It just means other pollutants at the measuring sites do not regularly exceed the permitted statutory maximum. Air pollution remains a problem in many areas of the Medway Towns.
The main source of the pollution in Medway comes from road traffic emissions, especially due to HGVs and town centre congestion, although other commercial, industrial and domestic sources also contribute. The Medway Air Quality Action Plan identifies 12 measures to improve air quality locally. These range from redesigning road layouts to educating residents about alternative transport methods. However progress seems very slow and the Plan lacks any commitment to the really radical action that will probably be needed. The most recent Annual Status Report estimated that in the previous year the reduction in pollutant emissions as a result of the measures taken by the Council was “between [less than] 1% and 10%, where estimates are possible”. Effectively there may have been little reduction, or even none at all. It will be interesting to see the results of the 2019 status report which should be published in the next few weeks.
Air pollution needs addressing urgently by Government at all levels. Nationally it is an example of a problem largely being ignored by a Government paralysed by Brexit. Locally, I see two problems:
1. Cash strapped Medway Council do not have funds available to take meaningful action on air pollution.
2. The large demand for development in the Medway area could negate or reverse the limited amount of progress made so far, with existing areas of poor air quality being put under additional pressure.
However something must be done and soon. I am sure our ‘business as usual’ Council administration will continue to work on the measures outlined in the Action Plan, but will that be enough? Public Health England has estimated that 125 deaths a year in Medway can be attributed to particulate air pollution. That is 125 too many.
Steve Dyke is a member of Medway Green Party and a previous local election candidate for Strood North and Strood South wards. Born in Northfleet, he moved to Medway aged 5 and has been here ever since.