Not all particles are equal
Recently, the Prime Minister's car was covered by a thin layer of Saharan dust and air quality was suddenly a lead item in the national news.
The dust itself does not pose a serious hazard to health in comparison with the finer particles (from diesel engines for example) that travel deep into the lungs, but Jim Mills, MD of Air Monitors, believes that the media attention that this event inspired should have a positive effect on the UK's strategy for improving air quality: "This recent pollution episode demonstrates that people need to be able to see pollution before they become interested in it," he says.
Just a few days prior to the Saharan invasion, the World Health Organisation reported that 'in 2012 around 7 million people died - one in eight of total global deaths - as a result of air pollution exposure. This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world's largest single environmental health risk.' This extraordinary and alarming statistic barely made the headlines, so why is that?
In the 1950s thick smogs meant that air pollution was highly visible to the public and politicians, whereas today, 'out of sight and out of mind' is an apt description of political attitude to air quality.
The problem with solving urban air quality problems is that death certificates never say 'Died from air pollution' so the statistics that show 29,000 premature UK deaths (as a result of air pollution) pass largely unnoticed because the 'cause of death' is usually a heart attack, a stroke or some other cardiovascular ailment. The fact that this figure exceeds those for obesity, alcohol and road traffic accidents is largely ignored.
Jim believes that the problem needs to be made visible: "People need to know what the air quality is, but that information needs to useful - in other words, knowing that air pollution is bad in London today doesn't really help. Londoners won't decide to work in Sussex today as a result!
"Air quality data needs to be more spatially specific; people need to know which streets are particularly bad so that they can make decisions accordingly; such as choosing a route to work or selecting a school in an area with cleaner air.
"Greater detail and higher visibility of air quality data will also help to motivate politicians to implement measures to improve air quality."
So, the answer is to find a way to improve the detail and visibility of data and Jim says this has been the focus of his company Air Monitors in recent years: "We have developed a bolt-on capability (AQWeb) for monitoring stations that utilises the latest communications technology and the 'Cloud' to make live data available via the Internet. In addition, working with the company Geotech, we have launched AQMesh, a revolutionary technology that dramatically reduces the cost and footprint of monitoring equipment so that air quality can be measured anywhere, and live data viewed at anytime from anywhere."
In summary, it is unfortunate that media noise following the appearance of dust on the Prime Minister's car raised concern about particles that were not the main culprit in the deaths that result from air pollution. However, it is encouraging that this event served to raise the profile of a critically important issue and that technology has been developed to provide air quality data that will be useful.
For further information please email Air Monitors Limited