Clearing the air

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ken Livingston share a vision of a smog-free horizon. But the UK needs to look beyond the current emissions regulations to achieve clean air, writes Kevin Stanley

My administration is committed to clean air, clean water and clean energy for everyone in our state. As I have always said, we don't have to choose between a healthy environment and a healthy economy. We can have both."

These are the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood actor turned state governor.

California has Schwarzenegger and London has Mayor Ken Livingstone. It may be their only similarity, but both are intent on working towards clean air for their respective constituents.

Controlling air pollution has long been a problem, especially in London. Historically major sources of pollution included emissions from domestic and industrial chimneys, while more recently emissions from motor vehicles has become the major contributing factor to poor air quality. Fortunately however recent regulatory measures have generally been successful and therefore emissions from industry and power generation are currently much lower than they used to be. European standards have also forced car manufacturers to reduce their negative impact upon the environment.

However, as the opportunity to further regulate the emissions from industry, power generation and vehicles is suffering from diminishing returns, local authorities need to look to other areas to make significant changes.

The City of Edinburgh Council says that, in common with most urban centres, road traffic is the biggest contributor to pollution in its city. "In Edinburgh, levels of particulates are typically around 18ug/m3. We do not currently have in place an Air Quality Management Area for PM10, so do not have a specific action plan," says Stephen Walker, environmental health and trading standards manager. "The EU limit value is 40ug/m3 and this is what London, the rest of the UK and Europe work to, but the Scottish Air Quality Regulations require us to achieve 18ug/m3 here, which is
challenging.

"Our Action Plan is based on reducing NO2, but we recognise that it is beneficial to seek to reduce PM10 levels and that many of our actions will have a positive effect on both pollutants," he says.

So, although it seems that road vehicle emissions are still at the forefront of people's minds the construction and demolition sector is the area that has been identified as now offering the largest opportunities for improving air quality. Air quality pollution emissions caused by these activities currently stand at seven kilo tonnes of total particulate matter emissions. Having identified this, Mayor Ken Livingstone has recently launched a new accreditation scheme to help encourage construction and demolition sites to cut harmful exhaust emissions.

"London will see decades of construction through the 2012 Games and the regeneration throughout the Thames Gateway," he says. "Harmful particulate emissions still exceed safe levels across much of London and this initiative is one of many we are putting in place to cut them. It complements the introduction of the London Low Emission Zone, which will reduce emissions from heavy road vehicles."

Environmental Protection UK, a charity that seek changes in policy and practice to minimise air, noise and land pollution believes that it is the traditional sources of pollution that now need to be addressed. "In big cities such as London it is very apparent that we won't meet health-based air quality targets just by waiting for vehicles to get cleaner," says policy officer Ed Dearnley. "Construction emissions from non-road machinery is not subject to the same emission controls as road vehicles and often uses fuel which is far higher in sulphur than road diesel.

"The London Best Practice Guidelines provides a framework for controlling emissions via retrofitting exhaust clean-up equipment, and by using low-sulphur fuels. Until now, although the London boroughs could specify that the guidelines had to be used as part of planning conditions, the scheme was voluntary.

"But now that the scheme is mandatory, the guidelines will be important in providing a level playing field. London is an important place to start due to the size of the construction market there." he says.

Air pollution is often caused by incomplete burning - combustion should ideally produce just CO2 and water, but impurities in the fuel or inefficiency in engines or boilers forms other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) from vehicle exhausts as well as microscopic particulate matter formed from most reactions involving combustion.

"The pollutants of concern in Westminster typically come from combustion sources," says Nina Miles, environment project manager at the City of Westminster council.

"Road traffic remains a major problem but we are more aware now that much pollution also comes from gas emissions, typically from combustion of gas boilers, both domestic and industrial.

"The publication of the Best Practice guide has informed the development of our new Code of Construction Practice, which also adopts a risk-based approach to identifying construction sites with the potential to generate significant quantities of dust near to sensitive sites.

"It is important to note the potential impacts that construction sites can have, despite being only temporary," she says.

It is a belief also held by the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea which states that poor air quality in London is caused by several key pollutants, each with its particular health effects and source, or sources (i.e. NO2, PM10, PM2.5, Ozone, volatile organic compounds and occasionally SO2). "We are very concerned about NO2 and fine particles produced by road traffic, although we are investigating other significant sources e.g. domestic heating emissions for NO2, and dust generation for particles," says a council spokesperson. "As the accreditation scheme has just been announced, we are looking at the most cost-effective way of encouraging contractors to adopt the retro-fitted equipment. We are also reviewing our approach to construction site emissions with our planning colleagues."

It is estimated that in 2005 there were around 1,000 accelerated deaths and 1,000 additional respiratory hospital admissions because of pollution from particulates. Cutting these emissions, is clearly crucial to improve both public health and the environment.

Nina Miles explains how it is important to raise awareness of this issue so that everyone, especially those who are most at risk - the elderly, the very young and those with pre-existing cardio-vascular conditions and asthma - can take appropriate action to minimise their exposure to pollution on days when it is highest. "We signed up to Air Text - a service which lets people know by mobile-phone text messaging when air pollution is likely to be high. They can then avoid taking non-essential trips, exercising outdoors, and ensure they carry any medication with them," she says.

Clearly, the issue of air pollution is not limited to London. What of the UK's other cities and towns? Cities that have to bare the brunt of rush-hour traffic twice a day certainly feel the effects of air pollution more than smaller towns and villages yet John Vesey, air quality manager at Cardiff City Council, makes the point that the high air pollution concentrations experienced in London are not experienced by the vast majority of local authorities in England and Wales. "Dealing specifically with air pollution from construction sites, the largest contributor to airborne pollution is not from on-site vehicle exhaust emissions. Such emissions are relatively small and it is doubtful that any increase in pollution could be measured as a result of such emissions.

"The greatest potential for emissions is that of dust arising from demolition work and dust raised by vehicle movements over unmade roads," he says.

It is hoped that the accreditation scheme, to be run by the Energy Saving Trust, will enable construction and demolition sites to play their part in reducing harmful emissions. According to the Greater London Authority's Best Practice Guide, machinery with a power rating greater than 37KW must be fitted with an approved after-treatment system from the NRMM after-treatment Register. The Energy Saving Trust will provide companies with a list of suitable devices that can be fitted to the exhausts of construction machines in order to cut emissions by a minimum of 85%.

Kevin Stanley is a freelance journalist

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