Martin Hannan: Polluters need clear the air talk

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It is absolutely not an accolade that Edinburgh wanted, but to find that the city has two of the top ten most polluted streets in Scotland is hardly surprising.

That St John’s Road in Corstorphine and Queensferry Road in the city centre are the fourth and eighth most polluted streets in the country will shock no-one who has ever sat in a traffic jam in these notoriously road-blocked locations.

As any fool knows, pollution from cars, buses and lorries is at its worst at spots where vehicles have to sit belching out exhaust emissions for many minutes at a time simply because they cannot move due to the traffic being clogged up.

The trouble with pollution is that it is not just traffic which is clogged up, it is our lungs, bloodstreams, brains and hearts which are forced to ingest some of the nastiest pollutants around. The fact is that the medical profession still does not know for certain just exactly how much damage is caused by pollution, but we can be pretty certain that hundreds, if not thousands, of Scottish lives are being seriously affected and probably quite shortened by such things as nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, which are known as NOx for short.

Believe you me, you really do not want to get too close to NOx. It is the unavoidable byproduct of the internal combustion engine, and is responsible for everything from increased asthma rates to aggravating heart disease.

For people with emphysema and bronchitis, NOx is deadly and areas of high traffic pollution should really carry health warnings telling people with heart or respiratory conditions to avoid these places like the plague.

The really annoying thing about the latest list of polluted Scottish streets issued by Friends of the Earth Scotland at the weekend is that it was all too predictable that Edinburgh would feature.

I well remember 25 years ago that kenspeckle figure, the late Dick 
Carson, warning Edinburgh that unless we dealt with pollution from traffic some parts of the city might well become no-go areas.

As director of environmental health, Dick and his colleagues instituted a practice which I believe is now widespread. They had noticed that city pollution was measured by meters placed many feet up in the air, which gave inaccurate readings of the scale of the problems due to the pollution dispersing as it rises.

Edinburgh was thus one of the first cities to measure pollution with meters sited at normal head height. The results were devastating, and for a while the city rejoiced, though that’s not quite the word for it, in the title of most polluted city in Europe.

Such measures as the removal of lead from petrol and the introduction of catalytic converters, plus the scrappage of old motors, have meant that there has been a reduction in pollution from the average vehicle. The problem is that there are many more vehicles on the roads, and jams are now an everyday occurrence.

What that means is that, as Friends of the Earth pointed out, Scotland is missing targets for the reduction of pollution which were set in the 1990s.

Those targets were supposed to have been achieved in 2005, but in Glasgow, for instance, air pollution levels are almost double what they should be. We are not quite so bad in Edinburgh, but we are still experiencing levels of air pollution well above the standards set by the EU and the UK Government.

The Scottish Government quite rightly points out that there has been progress in many areas of the country where the targets are met, but it is completely unacceptable that in 
Edinburgh in the year 2013 we are still choking on pollution caused by vehicles – and solely by them – which can seriously affect people’s health.

I am surely not alone in thinking that such pollution is connected to the massive increase in asthma among children which we all know is happening. And I have heard so many stories of people collapsing in the street either with heart problems, or simply being unable to breathe, that make me think that pollution is certainly a cause of serious ill health.

It is a basic tenet of international law that the polluter should pay for the pollution. You could argue that individual drivers who, for example, do not switch off their engines while stuck in a traffic jam are causing the pollution and should therefore pay for the damage they cause. But surely much more to blame are the vehicle manufacturers who make massive profits from building internal combustion engines that cause NOx, yet they actively resist being forced to spend money on researching methods to make their engines less polluting.

Governments wimp out when they are challenged to do something about the big car companies. Indeed, they fall over themselves to try and get the manufacturers to build in their countries.

It’s time for a genuine campaign to Kill NOx, and I happily give this suggestion to Friends of the Earth. If they tell people just exactly how bad the situation is with NOx, I am sure the public would be horrified and the campaign – call it KNOx – would take off so that politicians would act and force manufacturers to change.

KNOx is needed because for some people in this city, all they don’t need is the air that they breathe.