Getting people excited about air quality is difficult. The villain of the piece is invisible, risk accumulates very gradually with each breath we take, and when its pernicious effects do eventually emerge, they show up only indirectly in specific medical conditions. Nobody has ever been diagnosed with a bad case of air pollution.
Netflix recently had a go at dramatising the issue in their high-budget royal drama The Crown. It follows the story of Winston Churchill’s secretary, Venetia Scott, whose flatmate becomes severely ill as a result of breathing in too much filthy air during the Great Smog of 1952. Air pollution in those days was more visible. and we watch panicked Londoners trying to block up gaps in their windows to keep the deadly soot out of their houses and away from their coughing children.
Venetia rushes her friend to the local hospital and leaves her with a friendly doctor. But just as the viewer relaxes, safe in the knowledge that her flatmate is in good hands, Venetia steps out onto the street outside the hospital and is hit by a bus emerging suddenly from the dense smog. She is a metaphor for the approximately 12,000 Londoners killed by foul air that year. Churchill is dismayed and, following a public outcry, sets in train the work to introduce the Clean Air Act of 1956.
In reality, things were quite different. Historical accounts suggest that there was not a great outcry, so habituated were Londoners to the regular smogs. For many, the poor air quality aggravated underlying medical conditions, or caused chronic illness, rather than instant death.
That is why the Netflix writers needed the bus incident to underscore the danger of it all: at the time, most people were unconvinced by the link between smog and bad health. Indeed the spike in the death rate was explained away by an official report as the result of a coincidental outbreak of flu. Churchill did not have a secretary killed by the smog, and he did not regulate emissions as a result. When the air cleared after four days, the capital largely went back to business as usual.
In some ways, things are different today. Partly through studying extreme episodes such as the Great Smog, we are now under no illusions about the health risks of bad air. Careful scientific estimates suggests that at least 52,000 life years were lost due to air pollution in London in 2010 alone.
What hasn’t changed since 1952 is that the public continue to put up with dangerously high levels of air pollution, year after year. Despite some high profile public campaigns, there is no real outcry. And given that reforms to improve air quality – such as banning more of the dirtiest vehicles, or increasing road charging – will create losers as well as winners, an outcry is what is required.
Another episode from history shows that air pollution may be even worse for us than previously thought. In the early 1980s, there was a recession in the US which had a particularly severe effect on industry, causing many factories to either cut production or shut down altogether. It was the opposite of the Great Smog: a big, temporary reduction in air pollution in industrial areas.
Economists interested in child cognitive development have used this as a natural experiment. They showed that children lucky enough to be born during the recession, when the air was cleaner, had better exam results aged 16 than those born when the factories were emitting at full tilt. Air pollution is bad for our brains as well as our lungs, even while we are still in the womb.
In one sense, this makes the air quality prognosis even bleaker – but it may also help turn up pressure on policymakers. The writers of The Crown chose to show shots of children coughing and spluttering because there is something particularly emotive about seeing the young suffering from the actions of the old. GPs will tell you that a good time to get women to stop smoking is when they are pregnant, because the thought of harming their unborn child is more powerful than the thought of harming themselves.
We can only hope that knowing filthy air is damaging the brains of young Londoners will have the same effect. A Mumsnet campaign to clean up our air would be a force to be reckoned with.
Sam Sims is a Centre for London associate and a research fellow at Education Datalab. The Centre for London is convening an independent, expert commission to examine how London can tackle problems of congestion, pollution and safety. Find out more here.