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We Need to Think About the Air We Breathe

On the 30th of October until the 1st of November the World Health Organisation (WHO) together with UN Environment (amongst other organisations)held the first ever Global Conference on Air pollution and Health in Geneva, Switzerland. The conference was held in response to a resolution of the sixty eight World Health assembly where health ministers urged on a major upscaling on the response to prevent air pollution diseases. This is because air pollution is estimated to be the cause of about 7 million premature deaths worldwide each year.

There are two types of air pollution - ambient (outdoor) air pollution and household (indoor) air pollution. These two types can influence each other since air flows from between and through buildings. The pollutant that affects people’s health the the most is Particulate matters (PM) which is released from combustion engines and heavily associated with traffic. The smaller the particulate matter is, the further it can penetrate the human body and affect our cardiovascular system. Causing lung and heart related diseases. Particles smaller than 10 microns in diameter can penetrate our lungs and lodge deep inside, particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5) can enter the blood system and can increase the risk of heart and respiratory diseases further, as well as causing lung cancer. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to this kind of air pollution.

Photo: Phyllis Stephens, August 2015: 'Friends of the earth protest about air pollution in Edinburgh' From The Edinburgh Reporter.

Air pollution is less of an acute problem in more developed countries and Scotland can thus count itself lucky. Our two largest cities Glasgow and Edinburgh are both below the safe level of PM2.5 annual exposure as deducted by the WHO. Edinburgh is 40% below the safe level whereas Glasgow is 20% below the safe level. However just because we know that our cities are below the safe levels, we should not take our air for granted. We need to realise that both in Edinburgh and Glasgow we are still exposed to dangerous particular matters, especially when in proximity to heavier traffic and industrial sites.

In order to take personal responsibility there are several things you can do to fight air pollution. Straightforwardly you can avoid heavily trafficked areas during rush hours, or engage in practices which limits your contribution. This includes managing waste material correctly (i.e never burn your rubbish), update your heating and cooking appliances to one with a good energy efficiency rating, leave the car at home to cycle, walk or utilising public transport. One of the most important action to take however is to call for a change by engaging in the debate with you local leaders. A little often goes a long way and engaging in political issues is one of the best things you can do to make a difference.

Both Edinburgh and Glasgow have strategies implemented to improve air quality in the cities. This includes monitoring by using Air Quality Management Areas (AQMA’s), where measuring stations regularly measures the concentration of particulate matters. Glasgow is also expected to have the first Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in Scotland with its implementation on the 31st of December this year. This means that an area about the size of the current AQMA will be subject to restrictions of vehicle use. Edinburgh is of course a little bit jealous and have requested to get funding from Transport Scotland to implement a LEZ shortly as well. In addition both cities have similar strategies in reducing traffic congestion through being in the process of implementing green buses, car clubs, better infrastructure for cycling, adding and maintaining green infrastructure, as well as having cleaner taxis.

There are however some implementations that are not part of the action plans of these two cities that have helped other cities around the world. Barcelona is moving forward strongly with the planned implementation of an urban mobility plan which includes super blocks where traffic is limited in order to promote pedestrian and cyclist access. Heavier traffic is to be limited to the periphery of these blocks. Milan on the other hand have implemented a €5 congestion fee in the central area. The net earnings are in turn invested in the city’s sustainable development plan. Copenhagen has put in a big effort in cyclist infrastructure with highways dedicated to bikes and a substantially increased tax on new car sales with an exception for efficient vehicles or electric cars. In addition they are expanding their metro city ring with a total of 17 stations to make public transport more convenient. Perhaps some of these ideas could be implemented in the strategies for Scotlands cities.

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