Invisible Dust

London | Tuesday 23 April
Pollution level: Moderate

Air pollution levels rise


Last week a sluggish southerly weather system caused emissions from France and northern Europe to drift and hover, low in the sky, over much of England and Wales. With the pollution confined largely to the space between the ground and 500m, health charities issued warnings alerting those with lung conditions, plus children and the elderly, to avoid exertion. Only a month after the high pollution warnings of March, this particular bout was so concentrated that a visible haze hung over areas of the south coast from Brighton to Eastbourne.

Yet, as the fast moving Atlantic wind moved in over the weekend and cleared the smog from the skies, so too it loosened its grip on our attention, dismissing our discussion of pollution. The UK’s current timeline for reducing emissions means we will only meet current EU standards by 2030. As it stands Oxford Street in London has, by the start of April, already exceeded its yearly maximum ‘safe’ nitrogen dioxide levels four times over.

So when will action match reaction? The ‘pea soupers’of the 1950’s, episodes of heavy smog so named for their greenish hue, persisted across Britain for years before descending catastrophically over London in 1952, killing over 5,000 people in five days. That event didn’t even spur the government into rapid action, taking until 1956 to pass the Clean Air Act, phasing out the ‘soft’ coals that burned dirtily on open fires in homes.

It seems ridiculous that we have piled so many cars onto the road, & regulated our emissions so poorly, that we face the same challenges – and sluggish responses – 60 years on. However, we have at least advanced in our ability to understand the contents of those emissions. With forensic detail, pollution detecting planes collect and dissect the contents of the haze, identifying various culprits. Larger ‘fresher’ particles are likely from domestic sources – hence the smaller, staler contents of this weeks smog swinging attention onto mainland Europe. Pollution doesn’t respect national boundaries. As this BBC article puts it, a breath taken in England on Thursday may have been full of nitrates ‘emitted as a car accelerated away from traffic in Paris on Tuesday. ‘

Similarly, the contents lay bare attempts to pass the buck – nitrates mean car emissions, whilst sulphates originate from industry. Agriculture also plays a ‘healthy’ part.

-The unhelpful invisible nature of these emissions has always meant that although we see the indexes all around us, in congested roads, groaning exhausts and smoking chimneys – largely we divert our thoughts elsewhere. But confronted with the literal smoke from the fire, a haze hanging over our skies on a sunny weekend, should surely prompt us to react – physically, emotionally – and politically.

Invisible Dust is working with artist Kasia Molga and Professor Frank Kelly, King’s College London who leads a team researching air pollution to develop a new project, ‘Human Sensor’ Molga would like to develop more awareness around air pollution from a personal perspective.

BBC report on last week’s pollution with King’s College’s Ben Barratt.


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