An North East initiative has harnessed the power of comedy and social media to tackle the issue of poor air quality in urban areas, where the main cause is unnecessary private vehicle journeys.

Ed Foster, environment and safety manager on the region’s Local Transport Plan team explains how Be Air Aware, an awareness campaign covering the five local authorities of Tyne and Wear, launched its new website to develop an online community in the region to promote issues around air quality and how people can make simple changes to improve local atmospheric conditions.

The launch comes on the back of research which, among other findings, discovered 80 per cent of North East residents believe clean air is everyone’s responsibility, yet 60% ruled out cycling as a viable alternative to taking the car.

Mr Foster says the aim was to move away from a top down communications approach in favour of one designed to engage the public on an issue said to cause 50,000 premature deaths across the UK.

He said: “Today, air quality is an issue with its causes and effects rooted in community and individual behaviour – it’s about curbing private car journeys rather than getting industry to clean up its act.

“It’s a real challenge encouraging individuals to make changes- especially because air quality is an invisible problem.

But we’re really hopeful that bringing the issue to life on platforms like our website, which is integrated with Facebook and Twitter profiles, we can engage the public and bring about the crucial changes we need to protect and improve the health of city residents – particularly our children.”

Air pollution, including nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide, particulates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were highlighted in a Defra report in March which claimed they were responsible for 50,000 premature deaths a year. Research suggests a direct link between poor air quality and elevated levels of heart and lung disease and asthma.

A primary target of the campaign is youngsters.

Five schools across the region that taken great strides to substitute car school run journeys with walking, cycling and public transport have become air quality flagships, providing the bulk of content to the Be Air Aware website. Content includes videos, photos and blog posts.

To encourage web hits, the Be Air Aware team also asked a local improvising comedy group, the Suggestibles, to record podcasts to be downloaded from the website.

Ed added: “The Suggestibles are extremely popular in the North East and they’ve been a great edition to the initiative. They allow us to offer the public something they want, rather than another public health message and so far the feedback has been phenomenal.”

To coincide with the launch of the website, the initiative also engaged an editorial radio campaign in which one of the station’s presenters spent a week camping and travelling around the region to air quality enhancement activities on public transport.

Ed said: “We’ve been thrilled with initial feedback to the programme and the enthusiasm with which it has already been picked up around the region. Hopefully these are the first steps towards the change we need to improve air quality.”

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