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“Pollution is a public health emergency”

In the second part of her four-part series on Barnet’s views of the Ultra Low Emission Zone expansion, Maya Sall talks to local residents who support the scheme

A girl standing on a road bridge holding her nose
A young New Southgate resident experiences air pollution on a bridge over the North Circular – (Credit – Maya Sall)

“I felt the voices of parents who are concerned for their children’s health were not being heard enough in the public debate” explains New Southgate resident, Sarah Hall.

She joined campaign group Mums for Lungs in May, in response to a local anti-ULEZ organised by Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers. 

“I was so concerned about seeing Theresa Villiers organise an anti-ULEZ protest in my community where there were placards saying ‘stop the toxic air lie’ displayed” says Hall, one of several ULEZ supporters in the borough mobilised by the MP’s campaign.  

Hall talks about her sporty teenage son, who prefers to walk to and from school instead of taking the bus. It’s a journey he takes to relax and unwind but it is always disrupted by air pollution: “my son has to cross a footbridge on north circular to go to school and back everyday, and he tells me how bad the air is… he finds it really awful.” 

The effect of polluted air on her children’s health worries Hall: “it is so well-evidenced how detrimental it [polluted air] is to the health of adults and children… You never know, are you the one who is going to be hit by asthma or not?”

This anxiety is understandable. In February last year, Imperial College London released a report that estimated that between 2017-19, 1,700 Londoners were hospitalised due to asthma and COPD. 

While air pollution levels in London have since decreased, a study by City Hall published in April revealed that illegal levels of the poisonous gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are present across 14 areas of London. Levels of the toxin also broke limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Air pollution, therefore, remains a threat to public health in the capital.

Hall’s daughter will be starting secondary school in September and is therefore soon to embark on her brother’s commute. Hall and her daughter took me along the route, and the change in air quality as you approach the North Circular is apparent. Over the footbridge, the air is thick and breathing is difficult. “It stinks!” Hall’s daughter complained. 

In between attempts to hold her breath, she chattered away about climate change, providing facts about air pollution and becoming animated when her mother informed her that the ULEZ expansion will make her walk to school, a prospect she doesn’t share her brother’s enthusiasm for, more bearable. 

“In work, I see people coming in with asthma”

Another member of Mum’s for Lungs, Elizabeth Wan, joined the organisation on behalf of her 2-year-old daughter and future baby: “they can’t tell me how they feel about air pollution… [but] as a mum when you’re pushing a buggy along a pavement, I’m very aware that my daughter’s face is at the same level as an exhaust pipe.” 

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Elizabeth sighs, and her eyebrows draw closer together, “and now I’m pregnant I know that particles of pollution are found in the placenta and all of these things freak me out a lot.”

Wan is a doctor who works in the research labs at the Royal Free Hospital “so I know a bit about the damage it’s [air pollution] is doing”, she told me, “in work I see people coming in with asthma, I’m told that children have stunted growth because of the pollution that they’re breathing in”. 

As she shared her knowledge, her frustration with the lack of action taken by central government was evident: “Pollution is a public health emergency, and yet… our leaders our nit-picking over the details of Sadiq Khan’s scrappage scheme, which is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” 

It’s not only young children who are affected by air pollution – poor air quality can cause, or aggravate, a number of long-term health issues for people of all ages. 

Neil Macindoe, 79, lives in Southgate, just off the North Circular with his wife, Lois Chaber, 80, who suffers from a number of long-term health issues which impact her respiratory health. To alleviate the severity of Chaber’s conditions, the couple have had two air purifiers working away in their home for the past two decades. 

Despite owning a diesel car which is over 30 years old, the couple are supportive of the ULEZ expansion: “it’s easy to forget about air pollution because you can’t see it, but we see how dirty our air purifiers get – the ULEZ expansion will definitely improve things for us”. 

Chaber is a wheelchair user, so the couple are fairly reliant on their car, but Macindoe was more concerned about his carbon footprint than the £12.50 a day charge: “it’s a perfectly good car so I’m not going to get rid of it. I’ve done the calculations and because I only use it a couple times a week – go to the shops, or the pharmacy – our carbon footprint is pretty small, and sending the car to scrappage and shopping around for a new vehicle would actually be more detrimental to the environment.” 

Instead, he was upbeat about the upcoming changes, “the shops are only a ten minute walk away, and it’s a good excuse to get some exercise and not be lazy and resort to the car.”

The ULEZ expansion is simultaneously a climate and public health policy, but it is the health benefits of ULEZ which have galvanised its supporters. 

“Think of it like smoking”, said Dave McCormick, a member of Barnet Friends of the Earth and avid air pollution campaigner and data collector, “it wasn’t that long ago that we could still smoke inside. In ten or fifteen years time it will be just as baffling to us that we still had high-polluting vehicles on the roads.” 

For the Barnet residents that support ULEZ, the expansion is a common sense response to a public health emergency. 

This is the second part of Maya Sall’s four-part series on Barnet’s view on the ULEZ expansion. The first part – featuring local politicians campaigning against the expansion is published here.

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