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A Saharan smog

Posted 08/04/2014 by sevans

On my way to a meeting in London’s Kensington last week, I might have imagined I was somewhere in Asia. So shrouded in smog was the area that many of the borough’s residents had resorted to wearing face masks. The reason, according to national newspaper reports, was a blast of Saharan dust and emissions from continental Europe blown our way – so bad, indeed, that it stopped the PM from taking his morning jog in Hyde Park.

As a feature on page 13 of the next (May) issue of C&I points out, however, London still has a long way to go before it catches up with China’s pollution record. Air quality measurements taken at the end of February 2014 showed Beijing at an index level 517, compared with 207 for New Delhi, 34 for New York and 30 for London, says a report by World Review (WR).

In the evening of 12 January, the WR report notes that Beijing reached 755, 30 times higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) safety limit of 25 over a 24-hour period.

Thankfully, the Saharan dust was dispersed from our own streets in a matter of days, and nor does it pose a serious health hazard compared with the finer particles, for example, from diesel engines, which travel deep into the lungs, according to a release by UK company Air Monitors. Even so, the London smog episode shows how much work still needs to be done to tackle air quality problems in the UK and the importance of live access to air quality data, says Air Monitors’ MD Jim Mills. ‘The problem with solving air quality problems is that death certificates never say “Died from pollution” so the statistics that 29,000 premature UK deaths as a result pass largely unnoticed because the “cause of death is usually a heart attack, a stroke or some other cardiovascular ailment,’ the company points out in a release. Yet the fact is that this figure exceeds those for obesity, alcohol and road traffic accidents.

In China, by comparison, in 2010 pollution was reported to have caused the premature deaths of 1.2m and reduced life expectancy by 5.5 years. Worryingly, WR also refers to a study at China’s Agricultural University that suggests if smog persists it could even impede photosynthesis and threaten food supplies.

London may not yet be as polluted Beijing, but as numbers of cars, people and smokers on our own streets expand, the Sahara dust episode is a timely reminder of how urgently we need to find and develop better technologies to curb the attendant pollution problems.

Cath O’Driscoll, Deputy editor

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