Addressing coronavirus means addressing air pollution

“Air pollution makes people vulnerable and susceptible to a whole host of health conditions – Covid-19 has delivered ‘the final coup de grâce’.” Transport Spokesperson Caroline Russell explains the link between air pollution and susceptibility to Covid-19.

London traffic

Image by Max Plieske from Pixabay 

Caroline Russell

A picture is emerging of a clear increase in the risk posed by coronavirus in polluted areas.  This is particularly worrying for Londoners, who are exposed to high levels of PM2.5 particle pollution every day. Pollution attacks our respiratory system, making it an unwanted ally of Covid-19, compounding the damage the virus causes, in much the same way smoking and  pollution worsen COPD outcomes. 

In a peer-reviewed Harvard University study, it was found there is an increase of around 11 per cent in coronavirus deaths per 1 microgram per metre cubed increment in PM2.5 background levels.

Speaking about the increased susceptibility and vulnerability to coronavirus for people living  in highly polluted areas last October, Dr Maria Neira of the World Health Organisation said: “We need to make sure that this double burden is tackled in a very important way,  addressing as well the causes of air pollution.”

At an Assembly environment scrutiny committee meeting in November, Dr Ian Mudway, Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health, Imperial College London, explained that air pollution makes people vulnerable and susceptible to a whole host of health conditions and described Covid-19 as coming along and delivering “the final coup de grâce, so to speak.” 

Vehicles produce around half of the air pollution in London, making them the single biggest cause of pollution in the city. According to a recent study by Eurostat and The European Public Health Alliance, London suffers the worst social costs from pollution from roads in  Europe – double that of Bucharest, the second-worst affected city. This out-of-control pollution puts London a step behind before the race to control the virus has even begun. 

It’s urgent that the Mayor of London uses his powers to cut pollution. This means doing three things together:

  1. Reduce traffic with a smart, fair, privacy friendly road pricing system, charging per mile, by time of day and by engine emissions. I have been arguing for the implementation of this system for years. I hope the even greater need to reduce pollution as a result of the pandemic will finally lead him to act. 
  2. Clean up any vehicles left on the road with a London-wide Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), where older, dirtier vehicles have to pay a daily charge. London will have a ULEZ stopping short at the north and south circular this October. It still excludes outer Londoners and should cover the whole city. 
  3. Enable everyone, including children, older and disabled people, to make local  journeys safely on foot and by wheelchair or bike. One way to do this is by bringing in Low Traffic Neighbourhoods where every home is accessible by vehicle, but traffic cannot cut through from one main road to another.

We know Londoners are open to change. Data I obtained in November showed that nearly half of all journeys were walked or cycled during the first lockdown, up nearly 20 per cent during the same period compared to 2019. 

It’s more important than ever that as we live more local lives that we help people reduce their use of cars to protect everyone’s health not only for the future but also during the pandemic. 

Caroline Russell is the London-wide Green Party Assembly Member