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Air pollution puts Camden residents at higher risk of severe or fatal coronavirus

PUBLISHED: 17:00 09 April 2020

The biggest cause of London's deadly air pollution is road traffic. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

The biggest cause of London's deadly air pollution is road traffic. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

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Camden residents are at increased risk of severe or fatal coronavirus symptoms, after decades of exposure to high concentrations of air pollution.

Evidence shows pollution causes and worsens numerous health problems, including asthma. Picture: Yui MokEvidence shows pollution causes and worsens numerous health problems, including asthma. Picture: Yui Mok

Medical conditions whose sufferers are most at risk from covid-19 are either caused or worsened by air pollution.

Government body Public Health England says 6.8 per cent of adult deaths in Camden in 2018 were attributable to air pollution. The England average is 5.2pc.

“This is a problem that we have lived with too unwittingly and too unquestioningly for too long,” a 2019 Camden Council report said. “Long-term exposure can contribute to the development of chronic diseases and increase the risk of respiratory illness.”

“Consecutive governments haven’t done enough,” said deputy council leader Patricia Callaghan. “It was like a train rolling along, gathering up speed. People thought, ‘Oh, well, it will slow down eventually’. But it hasn’t. It’s exacerbated. Now it’s very stark.”

The council has taken a hard line on pollution. It was the first in the UK to toss out Government’s ‘limited’ targets for reduction and seek instead to comply with more ambitious targets set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Its most recent air quality report, published in July 2019, found pollution was now decreasing.

However, 10 monitored sites still had average Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) concentrations exceeding the legal limit of 40 microgrammes (μg) per cubic metre of air - a limit set for ‘protection of human health’.

One monitor in Euston Road gave an average annual reading of 82.34μg. A second in Euston Road registered 69.2μg. In Tottenham Court Road it was 65.7μg. In Swiss Cottage, 62.3μg.

In addition to the 10 sites breaching the limit, two were on the cusp. One, outside Emmanuel CE Primary School in West Hampstead, had an annual average of 39.8μg.

Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, said some coronavirus patients would die as a result of air pollution. Picture: Clean Air in London.Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, said some coronavirus patients would die as a result of air pollution. Picture: Clean Air in London.

Camden’s poorest residents will likely suffer the most. A 2017 study commissioned by the Greater London Authority found over 75,000 Camden residents lived in areas which were in both the worst 30pc for deprivation and the worst 30pc for air pollution.

Exposure to high levels of NO2 reduces lung function and increases respiratory illness, hospital admissions and premature death rates. According to the British Medical Association, exposure to pollution during pregnancy increases the chances of low birth weight and growth retardation – and the babies are more likely to develop chronic diseases later in life.

Government guidance says conditions caused or worsened by NO2 exposure – like asthma, respiratory disease, COPD, heart disease and some cancers – also make sufferers more susceptible to severe covid-19 illness.

A recent study by America’s Harvard University found small increases in long-term pollution exposure correlated with large increases in the coronavirus fatality rate.

Cllr Pat Callaghan called for some lockdown measures to become the norm, such as increased home working. Picture: Camden CouncilCllr Pat Callaghan called for some lockdown measures to become the norm, such as increased home working. Picture: Camden Council

“Living in London, where pollution is high, will have made all Londoners more susceptible, to some extent,” said Simon Birkett, founder of campaign group Clean Air in London. “Those who have more serious conditions will be more exposed.”

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Italian scientists now also believe high pollution levels may make the disease easier to catch, leaving London residents facing a double-whammy of complications.

“There is some evidence that pollution particles carry the virus,” said Mr Birkett. “So by living in an area with high pollution, you’re more susceptible because of the health impacts and you’re more susceptible because the pollution carries it.”

Cllr Adam Harrison welcomed news that pollution had fallen during lockdown, but said more must be done to keep levels low after the pandemic. Picture: Polly HancockCllr Adam Harrison welcomed news that pollution had fallen during lockdown, but said more must be done to keep levels low after the pandemic. Picture: Polly Hancock

An investigation last week by the Ham & High and Clean Air in London found Camden pollution levels had fallen dramatically since lockdown began. At Euston Road, NO2 pollution was down almost 60pc.

“If we had taken more action on air pollution, less people might be getting the virus,” said Mr Birkett. “We should have met WHO standards in 2010, rather than, as a result of this tragedy, in 2020.”

Reduced traffic has been a silver-lining of the pandemic, said Cllr Callaghan, and she hoped it could continue.

“It would be lovely to have more of the streets like this,” she said. “When I was young, you could safely play out on most streets. I think we are going to be looking at major ways of trying to reduce traffic. I think working from home benefits everybody. Zoom meetings benefit everybody. It’s about changing people’s behaviour – getting them to live more within their communities.”

*Council’s pollution lead welcomes drops*

Camden’s lead councillor in the fight against deadly pollution has welcomed news that concentrations fell drastically after lockdown was imposed.

But Adam Harrison, cabinet member for a sustainable Camden, also warned against complacency.

He said: “Unfortunately such levels of air quality don’t reflect normal levels of activity in the borough: the challenge remains for us to cut air pollution while allowing the local economy to function in the way we expect and want it to.

“We know that air pollution can create and worsen certain conditions, such as those affecting the lungs and heart, which in turn can make us more susceptible to diseases like covid-19.

“If new research confirms that air pollution can even help spread coronavirus, then this only strengthens the need to clean up our air and for everyone to pull together in doing so.

“Camden’s Clean Air Action Plan takes just this approach, of asking everyone who contributes to and experiences air pollution to take responsibility for reducing it.”


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