Christine Jardine: The polluted air she breathed killed my mum

Air pollution is estimated to be responsible for 2,500 deaths a year in Scotland
Air pollution is estimated to be responsible for 2,500 deaths a year in Scotland
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Getting rid of air pollution from our towns and cities is a cause that is deeply person for me, writes Christine Jardine.

The air we breathe is something we tend to take for granted. We can’t see it but we know it’s there and trust that it’s clean enough for us to take in safely.

Unfortunately that is not always the case. And often it can be years, even decades later, before we realise the damage it has done.

I grew up in a part of the world where the air we breathed in was not only unclean but, for hundreds of people, deadly.

My mother, Nessie Jardine, is one of the many whose name appears on a monument in Clydebank to the victims of asbestos-related diseases.

The tiny invisible particles invaded and destroyed her lungs and so many of her contemporaries’.

Perhaps that’s why I take the campaign for clean air in our city so personally.

Because when you’ve seen the damage, pain and suffering that breathing in harmful fumes can do to a life, it leaves a legacy that you can either allow to degenerate into bitterness or harness to work for change. I chose the latter.

That is why when I read the figures for air pollution along St John’s Road and Queensferry Road in Edinburgh it make me first angry and then determined.

I’m angry that so many of our children are breathing in air that breaches every standard and guideline for their health on a daily basis.

Research by Friends of the Earth Scotland last year featured both these roads in the far-from-sought-after “top threes”. St John’s Road was the second most polluted street for nitrogen dioxide in Scotland in 2017. Queensferry Road was the second most polluted street for particulate matter in the same year.

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Along these roads are residential areas, businesses and schools. People of all ages, from all walks of life, are being exposed to pollution.

You can often feel the change in the air as you travel into the city. I found myself coughing for no apparent reason on my first day back in St John’s Road after a few days away and I couldn’t help but wonder what damage it was doing to those who live along that route.

It’s a problem of which I have a constant, material reminder. One of Edinburgh’s six air monitoring stations is right outside my office door in St John’s Road. I’m determined that we will eventually make it redundant.

To tackle the issue, I used Clean Air Day to launch a petition and Clean Air Campaign with my colleagues Alex Cole Hamilton MSP and Councillor Gillian Gloyer, working with Corstorphine Climate Action, because for me clean air and climate change go hand in glove.

In Scotland, we have some of the most ambitious climate change targets in the world, but the Scottish Government has consistently fallen short of them.

I believe if we are going to change the big picture, clean up our air and tackle climate change, it’s no use depending solely on national governments and international frameworks.

We have to work on the local areas where we know there is a problem.

That is why it is crucial to take the opportunity offered by Edinburgh City Council’s plans for Low Emission Zones to start turning the situation around.

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But I doubt it will be much use if those zones are confined to the city centre.

To make a real impact on the worst affected areas, we need them extended at least as far as Corstorphine and Murrayfield and along Queensferry Road.

In the past, my colleague Alex Cole-Hamilton has called for regular spot checks of vehicle emissions, and for the speeding up of the roll-out of electric and hybrid buses.

And real change will also need more investment in cycle paths and safe walking routes, as well as investing in continuous improvement of our public transport links and protection for our green belt from so many housing proposals in which there is no suitable infrastructure.

It’s not going to happen quickly but we have to make a start.

Some of the proposals might involve personal change like switching to public transport from driving ourselves everywhere. Or perhaps encouraging more people to think about cycling along properly designated and maintained cycle paths.

But if we don’t do it, we may find the cost, and pain, in a few years is far greater than the inconvenience of change now.

I went back to my childhood home recently to visit my sister.

The visible scars of the industries which blighted a generation’s health are now gone.

And the impression that somehow there were parts of the town where the sun could never quite breach the grime is no longer an issue.

But the knowledge of how it, and so many towns in Scotland, used to be and the price we paid for it should spur us all on to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

When our children return to school after the summer let’s hope we have already made a start.

Christine Jardine is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West