Do not breathe too deeply in the city

I was brought up in Poplar, which is in the East End of London and is now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. My school was separated from a main road by a very narrow pavement. The road was dirty and dusty because it carried mainly lorries and commercial vehicles going to and from London’s docks, around the Isle of Dogs and further east at Tilbury. The noise from the traffic was such that being taught in some rooms was a trying experience and it was disturbing, mildly so, when we took examinations, but the traffic dirt was the worst problem. Tower Hamlets has not changed much, in terms of traffic since then; I suppose that there is now more traffic but the traffic is less polluting with higher emission standards and catalytic converters.

I was interested to learn that recently some children in Tower Hamlets have been tested for lung capacity and it has been found that the lung capacity of eight and nine year olds is 5% lower than the national average. A significant proportion of them – around 7% have such reduced lung capacity as to make them strong candidates for future breathing diseases and disorders.

Being brought up in Tower Hamlets has plenty of disadvantages; generally it means that you have an income that is significantly below the national average, that you are more likely to live in fuel poverty, and that your school children have free school meals. These disadvantages are bad enough without the children having a smaller than average lung capacity.

The study links the loss of lung capacity to traffic pollution, particularly particulates from the use of internal combustion engines. These particulates are less than ten microns in width and gather around the road side at the height of the average young child, so that children engaged in such innocent activities as walking to school get lungs full of particulates, which stay in the lungs and stay there, mostly for the whole of your life.

Particulates in the air cause or aggravate lung and heart disease, just like smoking does. Those at most risk are the young whose lungs are still developing and the old, often because they have undiagnosed lung or heart conditions.

The European Union requires its member states to keep air pollution below 40 microns per cubic metre of air. Britain, so punctilious about meeting European laws in other respects has largely ignored this requirement. It argues that the majority of British air meets this requirement over the land mass, but of course the majority of the population live in places where this requirement is breached. If the UK was as strict about its air quality as it was about its waste disposal, it would be a healthier place.

The United States has an air pollution advisory guide which you can see at

Air pollution in cities surrounded by hills and mountains is particularly bad, because of the effects of thermal inversion. What happens normally is that the higher you go the cooler the atmosphere becomes, for a few hundred metres. Sometimes, either because of the effect of surrounding mountains (such as Mexico City and Santiago de Chile) or because tropical weather systems (such as in California) a layer of warmer air traps the layer of air at the surface, preventing its escape. This has the effect of trapping the particulate pollution around the city – as a photochemical smog.

However even if there is no thermal inversion (these occur rarely in Poplar) the sheer weight and density of the traffic creates a stream of particulates, which are in effect filtered out of the atmosphere by people’s lungs, particularly those of children.

It would be wrong to lay the blame traffic alone. It is an important contributor to airborne pollution but not the sole contributor. In my youth in Poplar I lived in a property built for the Festival of Britain in 1951; it had a coal shed. These days very few people, in any in Poplar, burn coal, but they do burn the relatively cleaner natural gas. Natural gas emits ultra fine airborne particulates, particularly when gas is burnt for cooking.

The latest wheeze by property developers to comply with renewable energy regulations is to include wood pellet burning boilers. These of course are very high emitters of particulates – far higher than natural gas and higher than traffic particulates, when you calculate energy compared with particulates emitted.

So when you next see a child with a “puffer” because the child has breathing difficulties remember that it is our cars, our fossil fuel burning and our wood burning that create the particulates that give rise to the problem. Particulate pollution caused by coal burning has lessened; that caused by traffic has increased. That caused by natural gas burning is increasing as has that caused by wood pellet burning.

Unless we control burning (including burning by cars) we shall see many more children in cities suffer from lung disease, which for them will be a life long condition.

3 Responses

  1. very good thanks

  2. How can burning wood be environmentally friendly?

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