What causes London’s air pollution, and other smoggy questions

London. (We think.) Image: Getty.

I fear my chronic sore throat may be caused by air pollution – but I’m too nervous to ask the GP. I’m not one of the “very sensitive individuals” that this Defra blog says should be concerned. I am not old, pregnant, nor suffering from a pre-existing lung or heart condition. And even if the pollution is giving me gip, I can hardly expect our over-stretched NHS to prescribe a cure for breathing.

But is it time to ditch my press-on-regardless mentality with regard to air quality? On Monday last week, pollution levels in London were so high that Mayor of London Sadiq Khan issued his first “very high” alert. When levels are this bad, the government’s Daily Air Quality Index recommends that even healthy members of the public “reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors”.

On a day to day basis, Defra advises that UK air pollution “is not expected to rise to levels at which people need to make major changes to their habits to avoid exposure”.

But London's most recent pollution-peak is not a one off. Brixton Road in Lambeth breached the EU’s legal limit of annual exposure to Nitrogen Dioxide (NO₂) within the first five days of 2017. And the consequences of long-term exposure, even to low level ambient pollution, are not to be sniffed at. The Royal College of Physicians estimates that outdoor air pollution is a contributing factor in around 40,000 deaths per year. The estimate on the Defra website is 25,000.

So when do the short term effects, such as sore eyes and throat, become symptoms of a chronic health concern? When does an air pollution “episode” become long term exposure?

The short and shocking answer is that if you lived in London for the whole of 2016, then you likely exceeded the limits for long-term exposure to at least one kind of air pollution. According to Timothy Baker, principal analyst at The London Air Quality Network, “the vast majority of London exceeds its long term annual average of Nitrogen Dioxide levels”.

Lawyers from ClientEarth have even taken the government to court over the country’s illegal levels of NO₂ – not just in London, but in 37 out of 43 zones across the UK.

So if you think it’s time to de-smog your knowledge of the subject, here’s what you need to know:

How bad is London, really?

We are used to seeing contemporary images of Beijing’s brown haze or older photos of Britain's “peasouper” smogs – and, in comparison, London's recent fog appears a relatively picturesque affair.

But don’t be fooled. According to The Telegraph, at 3pm on Monday 23 January the government’s Air Quality Index hit a peak of 197 micrograms per cubic metre for particulate matter. That’s 190 micrograms higher than the World Health Organisation’s upper safety limit and 7 micrograms higher than notoriously unhealthy Beijing.

What are these pollutants doing to me?

report published last year by the Royal College of Physicians, argued that the serious effects of long-term exposure to air pollution, even at lower levels, “cannot be ignored”. Cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and dementia are just some of the conditions to which air pollution has been linked. There is even evidence to suggest that it may be damaging your mental health.

Young children are particularly at risk. This passage from the RCP report is particularly chilling: “Children living in highly polluted areas are four times more likely to have reduced lung function in adulthood. Improving air quality for children has been shown to halt and reverse this effect. For older people, living near a busy road speeds up the rate of lung function decline that is associated with ageing.”

You can’t see it. You often can’t smell it. So how do we even know air pollution exists?

The government’s Daily Air Quality Index measures for particle pollutants of size PM2.5 and size PM10: this means that the air contains tiny particles of soot (black carbon), metals and other compounds that are either two and one half microns or less, or ten microns or less, in width. It also measures the levels of the gases Nitrogen Dioxide (NO₂), Sulphur Dioxide (SO₂) and Ozone.

DEFRA collects this data from over 300 monitoring sites across the UK, which you can find listed on this interactive map. The most intensive measuring network in the country, however, is run by the London Air Quality Network at Kings College London. The team here uploads hourly pollution indexes for the capital to their website and apps.

What causes it and how can it be stopped?

Timothy Baker from The London Air Quality Network, says that last Monday’s peak was due to a build up of localised fumes, pollution drifting in from the continent, and a period of windless weather that failed to disperse the dirty air.

Some of the localised pollution contained high levels of particles from wood burning fires – possibly from families putting their feet up on a chilly Sunday afternoon. But don’t let the temptation to moan about fire-place owners distract you from the most pressing cause of London’s pollution problem: the nitrogen dioxide emissions resulting from an increased use of diesel cars.

“Diesel is a lot worse than petrol,” says Baker. “Petrol cars over the last twenty years have had their act cleaned up [...] but modern diesel cars are only just meeting the same sort of standards that they should have been meeting ten years ago.”

What can I do to protect myself?

Checking the daily air pollution forecasts in your area is a sensible place to start. Then you can decide whether or not to exercise outside, avoid busy roads, or don (as I’m considering) your very own Darth-Vader-style protection mask.

What can be done by others?

There is hope. Last week, Sadiq Khan announced funding for audits that will identity ways London schools can lower their exposure to pollution, while in Paris, authorities responded to pollution peaks by imposing temporary driving restrictions and making public transport free.

But more action is also needed from the government. “The government has consistently failed to deal with air pollution across the UK,” says ClientEarth lawyer Anna Heslop. ““We get these smogs every winter, so besides the air quality plans which the government has been ordered to improve by the UK High Court, we need action in the very short term, especially in our bigger cities.”

In the meantime (cough), I should perhaps take a deep breath and book that GP appointment.

India Bourke is editorial assistant at the New Statesman, where this piece was originally published

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.