Here’s a summary of today’s events:
Record levels of air pollution have continued to hit the UK. Pollution levels reached level 9 early on Thursday morning in the south-east, Greater London and eastern England, the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) reported on its website. Very high levels of pollution were also forecast later on Thursday for the east midlands.
The government sent out conflicting public health information about what to do in the smog. Defra’s helpline said “everyone is advised to reduce physical exertion particularly outdoor,” in areas where the air pollution is rated as “very high”. But Public Health England said it is only those with heart and lung conditions and old people who should avoid strenuous physical activity.
- Alarm about poor air quality turned into a political row after David Cameron said the smog cloud was a “naturally occurring weather phenomenon.” He made light of the problem by saying he had skipped his morning run. The Green party accused him of trying to shirk responsibility for the government’s failure improve air quality.
- London mayor Boris Johnson has been urged to impose a series of emergency measures including bans on schools car runs and restrictions on the most polluting vehicles. The call was made by former deputy mayor Jenny Jones who accused Cameron and Johnson of being “bystanders during a public health emergency.”
- Some ambulance services have reported an increase in respiratory related call outs. Chemists also said there had been an increase in customers complaining of breathing problems. Amazon reported an increase in face mask sales, and 30% of people with asthma said they had suffered an asthma attack since the smog alerts were issued.
South westerly winds will not bring better conditions until Friday. Rain is forecast to wash away a cloud of Saharan dust coating more cars with a film of sand.
The government continues to send out conflicting public health information about what to do in the smog.
Defra’s helpline said “everyone is advised to reduce physical exertion particularly outdoor,” in areas where the air pollution is rated as “very high” (see earlier).
But Public Health England said it is only those with heart and lung conditions and old people who should avoid strenuous physical activity.
Jenny Jones, the Green London assembly member and former deputy mayor, has accused Boris Johnson and the government of being “bystanders during a public health emergency.”
blogpost on Left Foot Forward she said: “Both Boris Johnson and the government continue to stand idly by while millions of Londoners are exposed to pollution that can permanently damage their health.”
Jones set out five specific emergency measures that mayor should consider:
- Imposing restrictions on vehicles that are the most polluting and restricting non-essential personal car journeys. Electric, hybrid vehicles and those carrying at least 3-4 passengers would be exempt.
- Encourage business to avoid peak times journeys and more out of hour deliveries. Along with employees being encouraged to work from home. Partly as a result of working with businesses the 2012 London Olympics were the least polluted of recent times.
- Sending Mayoral pollution alerts to the 1,148 schools in London that are within 150 metres of roads carrying 10,000 plus vehicles per day and a total of 2,270 schools within 400 metres of such roads. The mayor’s airtext service could be adapted for this purpose.
- Ban school runs during pollution episodes. Encourage schools in high pollution risk areas with the help of police community officers to enforce school run bans. Alongside more rigorous adherence to school travel plans with information for children and parents to avoid pollution exposure.
- Regional weather updates should include information about harmful to human health particulate and nitrogen dioxide levels.
Dave Throup, the environment agency’s manager for Herefordshire and Worcestershire, warns that more Saharan dust is heading our way. He said rain forecast for Thursday night meant that it would be deposited on England.
Bad air quality is primarily a result of road transport, according to the environment campaign Stephen Tindale.
In a blogpost for the Fabian Society, Tindale, who is also Labour activist, writes:
Diesel is worse than petrol for air quality (though less bad for the climate). Diesel engines can be relatively clean if well maintained. But good maintenance is not always a strong point of white van men (or indeed white van women), or of cab drivers.
Instead, cars and vans should run on electricity. That would dramatically improve air quality. It could also reduce climate pollution, if the electricity was generated by renewables, nuclear power or fossil fuels with CCS. So central and local government must use all available levers to promote electric vehicles.
Buses and HGVs should run on gas. This produces lower greenhouse gas emissions than petrol or diesel, and much lower toxic emissions. All buses in Delhi have to run on gas. Some European cities (including Madrid) use gas buses. Labour local councils should introduce gas buses; though they will be hard pressed to do so because of the deep cuts in grants that the coalition government has made – surprisingly enough – to Labour authorities. Gas buses are cheap to run, but the conversion has to be paid for and infrastructure provided. Nevertheless, gas buses are less expensive than hydrogen buses, which Ken Livingston promoted while London mayor. Together with electric cars, they could clean up Britain’s air dramatically.
Friends of the Earth has urged the government to do more to improve air quality.
Its airpollution campaigner Jenny Bates said:
We can’t just rely on a change of weather or wind direction to tackle the deadly air pollution incidents which regularly hit Britain – strong Government action is needed to tackle the underlying problem too.
Ministers, local authorities and the London Mayor must get much tougher on the causes of air pollution – especially traffic fumes.
Without urgent action to tackle this national scandal, thousands of people in the UK are likely to die prematurely again this year.
Schools should decide for themselves whether to keep children with asthma indoors, according to Asthma UK.
The government’s clean air adviser, Professor Frank Kelly, told the Guardian that all children in polluted areas should be kept in during break time.
Some schools have heeded this advise. But Asthma UK said it should be for individual schools to make their own decisions on what action, if any, they should take. Emily Humphreys, its head of policy and public affairs, said: “Our advice is to make sure every child who has asthma has access to a reliever inhaler. That goes for all the time, but particularly now when there is this additional high level of risk.”
The charity reported that 30% of asthma sufferers have experienced an attack since the poor air quality alerts were issued. Humphreys said: “It does highlight the impact that poor air quality can have on people … We are keen to see improvements to air quality. But the main focus for us today is dealing with asthma – making sure that people know what to do in an attack and aren’t panicking.”
Online retail giant Amazon told my colleague Josh Halliday that it has seen a 15% rise in sales of its face masks.
West Midlands Ambulance Service, which covers Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, is also reporting a noticeable spike in call-outs linked to breathing problems and chest pains, PA reports.
Daily figures for calls reporting breathing or chest problems were largely level at around 460 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday last week.
But hospitals in areas with the highest air pollution reported business as usual, according to PA’s ring round.
Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn said there had been no noticeable impact on admissions.
And Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, said there had been no increase in admissions.
GuardianWitness users continue to share their images and experiences of the smog. One said
“Horrible feeling of someone sitting on my chest,” said Vanterhyden.
More than 80% of Asthma sufferers have reported using their inhalers more than usual in the last two days, according to a snap poll by Asthma UK.
It also showed that 30% of respondents have had an asthma attack as a result of the pollution, and more than half of people said they had avoided going outside.
Kay Boycott, Chief Executive of Asthma UK said:
This new data demonstrates that the current high levels of air pollution are having a significant impact on the health and quality of life of people with asthma and that they need to take urgent action to stay safe. Asthma can be very serious, it takes the lives of three people every day so we want to do everything we can to help people minimise their risk of a potentially life threatening attack.
Debby Waddell, lead nurse at Asthma UK, advised sufferers what to look out for. She said:
We suggest that people keep an eye on their symptoms and know what to do in an asthma attack. You know you’re having an asthma attack if your reliever isn’t helping, your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheeze or tight chest) or you’re too breathless or it’s difficult to speak, eat or sleep. Children may complain of a tummy ache.
The London Ambulance Service saw a 14% rise in 999 calls for patients with breathing problems yesterday, according to PA.
The service said it is still experiencing higher volumes of calls for people with breathing difficulties, asthma and heart problems.
Before we get too alarmed by the current smog alert it is worth remembering how bad it got in the Great Smog of 1952.
The week-long pea-souper caused the deaths of at least 4,000 people, and eventually led to the Clean Air Act.
Katy Stoddard, from our research department, looked at how the Guardian reported the Great Smog, in a blog post to mark its 60th anniversary.
Discover Medical London digs out a great photo from the time.
Pharmacists are reporting an increase in customers reporting breathing problems, according to the chain LloydsPharmacy.
Anthea Lacey, one of its pharmacist at Virginia Water in Surrey, said:
We’ve seen lots of people presenting with symptoms related to the smog cloud. As well as those experiencing breathing difficulties, we’ve had customers come in with inflamed eyes, which I suspect is from the sand.
In particular, we’ve had people with chronic asthma in need of support – we have helped them with an asthma check-up, where we can make sure they are using their inhalers effectively. If anyone is worried or experiencing symptoms that they think may be related to the smog, they can speak to their local pharmacist for support.
A government helpline is advising “everyone” to cut down on physical exertion in areas hit by “very high” levels of air pollution.
The advice is part of a robotic sounding helpline set up by the government about smog levels and how it may affect health.
The number 0800 55 66 77, spells out what precautions people should take depending on the different levels of pollution.
It says: “At very high level pollution levels everyone is advised to reduce physical exertion particularly outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as cough or sore throat.”
The Guardian’s environment commentator, George Monbiot, is one of the many people who feel they are suffering because of the smog.
People who are experiencing breathing problems are being urged to call a helpline set up by the British Lung Foundation.
The foundation reports an increase in calls from members of the public complaining of breathlessness.
Today in one of our group meetings a number of people were already reporting that they were feeling under the weather, including myself. We couldn’t nail down a particular illness but we were feeling more breathless than usual. This made a lot more sense today when I found out that pollution levels had been on the increase.
I usually feel much better on warmer days like yesterday so I was quite worried when I didn’t feel well. My feeling is that pollution levels in general in the area have gone down in the last few years, but those periods when levels rise, like today, still have an effect. And you can’t just blame them on the winds coming in from Africa. We need to do more to stop the fumes coming out of lorries and buses – that’s what’s doing the real damage. Until we stop it, people will keep getting ill.
Deputy prime minister appears to be taking the smog problem more seriously than his coalition partner, writes Peter Walker.
Nick Clegg was asked about the smog on his weekly LBC radio phone in, Call Clegg. Slightly oddly, his co-host Nick Ferrari introduced the issue with the caveat, “Obviously, we can’t blame the government for this,” something others might disagree with.
Clegg said his youngest son, Miguel, had been up much of the night coughing, though he did not know if this was smog-related. He said:
“I think one needs to be a bit careful, particularly with the very young, the very old. Listen carefully to what the heath professionals say.”
“I was walking the kids to school yesterday and showing them this brown film on the cars. My youngest boy, as it happens, was up most of the night coughing, which is why I probably look a bit bleary-eyed. I don’t know whether that’s associated with it.”
The Green Party has accused David Cameron of trying to shirk responsibility for the smog by blaming the problem on natural causes.
In his interview with BBC Breakfast the prime minister described the smog as a “naturally occurring weather phenomenon”.
The comment was seized on Keith Taylor, a Green MEP for south east England who said Cameron’s “flippant” remark was “utterly disgraceful”. He said:
In the last 10 years nearly 300,000 people have died because of air pollution in the UK, that’s the equivalent of a city the size of Newcastle.
Yet, despite the ongoing threat of air pollution and the fact that the EU is taking legal proceedings against the UK on this issue, the Prime Minister has the audacity to lay the entire blame for the smog on Saharan dust.
We know that the dust was a contributing factor, and one which we have no control over. But the Government also know that 80 people die every day in the UK because of air pollution, and that we simply aren’t doing enough to tackle the smog coming from our cars and factories.
The Prime Minister’s flippant response to this invisible killer is utterly disgraceful. Officials from his own Government are saying that local air pollution is part of the reason for the smog we’re breathing in, yet he’s blaming it all on Saharan Dust.
The reason the EU is taking legal action against the UK is that the government simply isn’t doing enough to tackle the problem. We need urgent action on air pollution. That means cutting down the diesel fumes in our towns and cities, and investing in clean, affordable public transport options.
David Cameron needs to stop shirking responsibility and start taking action now on air pollution. To wilfully ignore this threat to our health is unforgivable.
The areas worst hit so far by pollution are the south-east and London, according to the latest data from a 130 monitoring sites released by Defra.
“Very high” levels were recorded in both regions. The worst of the poor air is forecast to hit East Anglia and parts of the Midlands today.
The advice I would give to people is listen very carefully to what the Met Office is saying about the weather. Public Health England’s website, you can look at that. Or just go to gov.uk, which is the Government’s website, which will give you the latest in terms of medical advice.
It is unpleasant, and you can feel it in the air.
It is difficult to tell whether dust on cars in the UK comes all the way from the Sahara desert or just a nearby building site.
But there’s a lot of it about.
John Curtin, the Environment Agency’s director of incident management and resilience, reckons a bit of the Sahara has made it to his car in Leamington.
Air pollution from vehicles, factories and homes is now so bad, that when it is exacerbated by a storm in the Sahara 2,500 miles away, or by high pressure over northern Europe, it can leave millions gasping, their skin itching and eyes watering, experts told Ian Sample and John Vidal.
When, as has happened this week, all three factors coincide, the outcome is a “perfect storm” for air pollution, says Helen Dacre, a meteorologist at Reading University.
First, emissions from British traffic and industry have steadily built up in the air. Then gentle easterly winds have brought more pollution from the industrial centres of continental Europe. To make matters worse the dust that has blown in from the Sahara has been whipped up by a storm that produced gale force winds in north Africa.
The pollution seen in the milky white air that has blotted out the sun and shrouded half of Britain for much of the past few days, is mostly made up of tiny particulates, such as nitrates and sulphates, mixed with fine desert dust. The particulates come from partially complete combustion processes, but diesel engines are a big culprit, and wear and tear from brake pads and tyres, as well as construction sites, all add to the problem.
Saharan dust is blown in all directions. Much is dumped in the seas. But several times a year strong southerly winds bring dust clouds as far north as Britain, mostly during spells of dry weather in Europe, which stops the dust being washed out by rain along the way.
The size of particulates is directly linked to their potential to cause health problems. The smallest particulates, those less than 2.5 micrometres, called PM2.5s, are the most dangerous because they penetrate deep inside lungs. Long-term exposure to particles is linked to higher levels of fatal heart and lung disease, including lung cancer.
It is not just England that is being hit by smog. As the corner of that Met Office map shows air pollution is also hitting Holland and Belgium.
Here’s the view in Amsterdam:
Twitter users have been sharing smog images from all over England. Here’s a selection of the latest:
The pollution is forecast on a scale of one to 10. The purple area shows the places that score 10 on scale where “very high” levels of air pollution are forecast. High levels of pollution are marked in shades of red from 7 to 9 on the scale.
Welcome to our continuing live coverage of the smog alert in the UK as more areas of England are warned to expect “very high” levels of air pollution.
Here’s a summary of the latest developments:
- Millions more people have been warned to expect “high” or “very high” levels of air pollution. East Anglia and parts of the Midlands are worst affected, according to the Met Office. Cleaner south westerly winds will not bring better conditions until Friday.
- David Cameron said he didn’t go for his morning run because of the smog. Politics Homes quoted the prime minister telling BBC Breakfast: “It’s unpleasant and you can feel it in the air…I didn’t go for my morning run this morning”
- Schools in areas affected by severe air pollution should keep pupils indoors at lunchtime to avoid them having asthma attacks and potentially lifelong lung damage, a key government adviser is urging. Prof Frank Kelly said children should be stopped from using the playground during school hours to reduce their exposure to the smog that is affecting south-east England and is expected to spread to the Midlands and East Anglia.
- Government advisers are putting out conflicting messages about the health risks, according to the Telegraph. It said Public Health England admitted that the “vast majority of people” would feel no effects and independent experts said there was “no need” to stay indoors. And that a similar alert was put out three weeks ago, when pollution levels were higher in London than on Wednesday. Defra has summarised the government’s advice in a table.
- The Met Office has admitted that it overstated the threat from air pollution yesterday and said that people had been panicked partly because it had just introduced a new forecasting system, according to the Times.
On Tuesday the Met Office forecast that there would be high or very high levels of air pollution across southern England and the Midlands yesterday.However, results from 130 monitoring sites showed that it remained low or moderate for most of the day over most of the country.
- Air pollution is the world’s single biggest environmental health risk and yet it is being played down by UK authorities, according to the Guardian’s environment editor John Vidal.
Don’t expect ministers to admit this is a public health emergency. And certainly don’t expect local or central government to take action, such as reducing car numbers in the streets or closing down factories. That’s what the Chinese and French governments do when the air in their cities is unbreathable and their people are choking. Not us.
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