The United Kingdom has been shrouded in a blanket of smog for the past few days, caused by record levels of pollution.
The U.K. government stated that the situation is temporary and has arisen due to a ‘combination of local emissions, light winds, pollution from the continent and dust blown over from the Sahara', but this allegedly blinkered viewpoint has been widely criticized.
European Commission spokesperson, Joe Hennon, described the prime minister's comments as "more than disappointing" and of showing a "clear misunderstanding" of the air pollution crisis.
"To say this is a temporary issue caused by Saharan dust shows a clear misunderstanding of the air pollution issue," Hennon said." Next week you will still have the same levels of air pollution in London and unless governments do something about that we will still have these problems."
The real cause of the high levels of pollution is being attributed to elevated levels of nitrogen building up in the atmosphere as a result of rising emissions from agriculture, power stations and cars. The concentration of nitrogen is now said to be reaching critical levels, according to Clare Whitfield, air pollution consultant at the government’s statutory conservation adviser.
“Nitrogen represents a major threat to biodiversity in the UK and across Europe. It is an under-acknowledged and very big issue that has slowly crept up on us,” said Ms Whitfield. "The nitrogen level is building up all the time as we continue to add to the pot and increase the cumulative impact."
The matter is considered to be so serious that in February the European commission began legal action against the UK for failing to reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution despite15 years of warnings. The EU environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, has accused Britain of "persistent" breaches of the air quality directive, and the British government has been sent a letter advising them formally of the intention to take Britain to court.
"It's more than disappointing because you have 400,000 people across the EU dying each year – including 29,000 in the UK – because of air pollution," said Hennon as Potocnik's European commission spokesperson."It's clearly an issue you would expect any government to deal with if it's serious about protecting the health of the general public,
It shows that the problem is not yet understood and one of the reasons we're taking legal action against the UK is that they've not met the targets they agreed to. If I was living in the UK then I would not be happy about that."
Dr Matthew Loxham, of the University of Southampton, said: "While the combination of meteorological conditions and air pollution levels have brought about the current situation, we are more concerned about the general levels of air pollution that do not make the headlines.
"[General levels of air pollution] may affect the lung development of children and have as-yet uncharacterised effects on the health of those exposed to it. There is an even greater link between air pollution and effects on the cardiovascular system (eg heart disease and stroke)."
The U.K. government has until next Friday (April 18th) to respond to the notice of intent, and are said to be taking steps to address the problem.
The issue of serious air pollution is not restricted to the United Kingdom, however, and a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that 7 million people died as a result of air pollution in 2012. The worst affected areas are said to be in Asia, from Japan and China in the northeast to India in the south, where the incidence of cardiovascular and pulmonary disease have been escalating dramatically over the past few years.
Based on the figures released in the WHO report, one out of every eight deaths around the globe can be linked to polluted air, which is now considered to be the world’s single biggest environmental health risk.
“The big news is that we have a better understanding of how large a role air pollution plays in strokes and coronary heart attacks,” said Dr. Carlos Dora, coordinator of public health and the environment at the organization. “Given the astronomical costs, countries need to find a way to prevent these noncommunicable diseases.”
The WHO report estimated that In India, 700 million people use biomass fuels for indoor cooking, which is a significant factor contributing to the levels of pollution in Asia. According to Kirk R. Smith of the University of California, Berkeley, who measured fumes emitted by the smoke from indoor ovens, the burning of biomass fuels, such as agricultural waste, is comparable to the pollution generated by burning 400 cigarettes per hour.
“Unfortunately, we have not made a lot of progress in the past decades, and household air pollution is still the largest single health risk factor for Indian women and girls,” WHO quoted Dr. Smith as saying.
In China two-thirds of the country’s energy is generated by burning coal, which has similar effects on the environment, and the release of the WHO report coincided with a World Bank study aimed at evaluating China's increasing urban development. The study claims that there has been little regulation governing the development of the country's cities, and has called for better planning and organization in the future. Based on current and previous current trends, the study indicated that Chinese cities could expand over an area equal in size to the Netherlands, which would lead to continued high levels of air pollution.China now intends to spend over $5.3 trillion on the managing the expansion of its urban infrastructure over the next 15 years.
The issue of air pollution not only affects the human population, but also animals, birds, insects and plants. In Britain, the elevated levels of nitrogen can have knock-on effects all the way through the food chain: wildflowers that do not thrive on nitrogen are shaded out when other nitrogen-loving plants expand, and consequently the fewer numbers of flowers impacts on populations of bees and other pollinators. The proliferation of plants caused by excess nitrogen eats up the bare ground habitats needed by butterflies, reptiles, beetles and ants, and lower numbers of insects affect bird populations.
So-called "acid rain" caused by air pollution affects the quality of soil for grazing animals worldwide, and all animals suffer in the same way as humans when pollutants are inhaled or ingested. Metals can cause problems in the circulatory, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems of animals, sometimes causing entire species to be affected. Fish can also be affected by contaminants in water, suffering diseases and respiratory distress.
Air pollution could be one of the most dangerous enemies facing the world today. It is an invisible and insidious killer that is posing a potent and deadly risk for all living things on the planet and, as such, addressing its effects should be given the highest priority by governments worldwide.
Dr. Dora of the health agency is hoping that the disturbing mortality rates released in the report would prompt people and governments alike to confront the issue of air quality with greater urgency.
“What’s needed is collective action,” he said. “The air you are polluting is the same air you breathe.”
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