How Islington’s toxic air is slowly killing our children

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What links Upper Street, Pentonville Road, Holloway Road and Seven Sisters Road? As well as being the busiest traffic thoroughfares in Islington, these places are also the borough’s most toxic pollution hotspots.

The cost to some Islington residents is certainly fatal. According to Friends of the Earth’s Islington co-ordinator Katarina Korytkova, air pollution is the second biggest cause of premature death in the borough, killing over 200 people per year.

Across London, air pollution is thought to be responsible for 9,400 early deaths per year. Evidence has suggested that health problems linked to toxic air disproportionately affect those living in deprived parts of London, according to official figures.

Research by the London Assembly’s Health and Environment Committee even found that man-made pollution particles contributed to 7.9 per cent of all deaths in Islington.

The more serious long-term effects of exposure to air pollution include an increased likelihood of chronic heart and lung disease, while a recent scientific study even found that people living near busy roads in Canada were more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s.

Pedro Lain, 21, lives in Angel but his route to university includes the notorious pollution blackspots of Pentonville Road and Euston Road. “My asthma attacks sometimes get triggered just by walking to campus from Euston station,” he said. “This is why I’ve had to stop cycling in central London, which I previously enjoyed doing before moving here to study.”

The serious toll of poor air quality on children living in the capital is becoming an increasing matter of concern for many.

Last year, air quality monitors found that nitrogen dioxide pollution exceeded legal EU limits in areas where 22 Islington schools were located. Schools near Exmouth Market, Highbury Barn and Camden Road, were in locations that had almost double the legal EU limit of 40 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre of air.

This problem is not confined to Islington alone, however: nearly a quarter of all London primary schools are in areas that have illegal levels of NO2 pollution. Nitrogen dioxide is particularly harmful for children, having been linked to a wide variety of cardiovascular illnesses in children, older people and asthma sufferers.

Tucked behind a busy major road in the highly polluted King’s Cross area, Winton Primary School has around 100 pupils aged between 5 and 11, many of whom live on the nearby council estates.

Traffic at a standstill, Angel. Credit: David Holt/Flickr

Suzie Kelly, 27, has two young daughters who attend the school. “I’ve noticed that my youngest suffers from bad coughing fits when there are lots of cars passing by on our walk to school,” she says.

“I do worry about the health of both my children growing up in this area, especially when there’s such a lack of green spaces near our home for them to play in.”

And her worries can be confirmed: according to an open letter signed by more than 280 health professionals last week, toxic diesel fumes can cause ‘irreversible lung damage’ in children.

Professor John Middleton, President of the UK Faculty of Public Health, told the London Evening Standard: “Diesel is linked to health effects that begin before birth and extend throughout the life course, from childhood lung development and asthma, to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and dementia.”

The letter, drawn up by campaign group Doctors Against Diesel, also highlighted the urgent need for government action to tackle illegal levels of air pollution nationwide through a proposed restriction on numbers of diesel vehicles.

But the UK government has been reluctant in the past to introduce a diesel ban. Instead, people are being encouraged to switch to low-emission vehicles, with an aim for almost all cars and vans to be zero-emission by 2050.

Diesel vehicles in particular are responsible for emissions of particulate matter – tiny droplets of soot, smoke, dust and other hazardous chemicals. Exposure to particulate pollution can cause serious health damage.

Professor Frank Kelly, an expert in environmental health at King’s College London, said: “Diesel-powered vehicles are often wrongly perceived by the public as more environmentally friendly, because they are said to have lower carbon dioxide emissions.

“However, diesel vehicles actually emit much higher levels of particulate pollution and there is evidence in animal studies that these can penetrate deep into the body.”

In the absence of a city-wide diesel ban, local councils across the capital are doing their part to slowly improve air quality.

In 2014, Islington Council pledged to crack down on vehicle idling – when drivers leave their motors switched on while waiting in traffic for long periods of time – as part of their air quality improvement strategy.

Since then, fines have been imposed on drivers who refuse to turn their motors off and monthly Idling Action Days organised by local environmental campaigners have seen volunteers raise awareness about the damaging effects of idling.

Sadiq Khan has introduced more serious measures to tackle the problem. Last December, he pledged to double the funding for combating London’s air pollution to £875m, in a move widely hailed by environmental activists and health charities.

The money will go towards new schemes including the expansion of a new ultra-low emission zone and the installation of a comprehensive network of air-quality alert signs at bus stops and major roads across the city.

More recently, Khan has announced a new “T-charge” of £10 per day for diesel and petrol vehicles with the highest emissions entering central London, in an attempt to price out the city’s worst polluters. It will come into effect on 23 October, adding to the Congestion Charge currently paid by all motorists who drive within Zone 1.

However, many campaigners are convinced that the government is still not doing enough to save a generation of young people in London – and indeed, across the UK – from what may be the most pressing public health problem of our time.

Dr. Penny Woods, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “Poor air quality has contributed to 40,000 early deaths a year across the UK. It’s an invisible danger that hits hardest people with a lung condition, children and the elderly.”

“The government has shown that huge sums of money can be made available for transport projects. It’s about priorities, and the future health of the nation must be pushed to the top of the list.”