Air pollution is already known to increase risks of heart disease, lung disease and premature death. There is now emerging evidence it may also increase risks of dementia, low birth weight and diabetes. Children are especially vulnerable. In Cambridge, traffic and the air pollution it produces is a daily problem. How can we change this?
In March, Public Health England (PHE) published a 263-page review of scientific evidence for interventions to improve air quality and public health. This should provide valuable guidance for Cambridge and other city authorities.
PHE sets out a hierarchy of interventions. At the top is prevention. That means eliminating sources of pollution. Switching vehicles to electric power is not a complete solution, as it does not eliminate toxic particulates from brakes and tyres.
So we need to focus on reducing the number of vehicles by getting people to use alternative modes of transport to driving a car. Interventions such as low emissions zones and road pricing which focus on this give the greatest health benefit. If revenue from these is redirected to encourage more public transport use or more walking and cycling then this has wider benefits, bringing communities together and helping people lead more active healthy lives.
PHE recommends targeting pollution hotspots and areas which have more vulnerable people, such as around schools and hospitals. The new Clean Air Zone being considered by the Greater Cambridge Partnership could have this as a stated objective and aim to divert the most polluting traffic away from Addenbrooke’s Hospital and primary schools, such as on East Road and Lensfield Road.
PHE emphasises the need for collaboration between public and private bodies involved in planning and delivering environmental protection, health, spatial development and transport. Locally that is a huge challenge, but the report’s two headline principles should be our guide: firstly, that all new projects should be ‘clean by design’, adopting a ‘net health gain’ approach; and secondly, we should focus on protecting children.
This should be something everyone can get behind. But we need to take action much faster. Lives are at stake.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 17 April 2019.