By Alice Tate-Harte, Founder, Clean Air for SE23
Clean Air for SE23 started in March of this year. It operates as a working group for the Environment Committee of the Forest Hill Society. Air pollution has been in the news a lot recently. Scientific studies have shown that air pollution causes asthma and other breathing problems. It affects vulnerable people the most: children, the elderly, expectant mothers and their unborn children. It lowers life expectancy and exacerbates existing health problems, affecting every area of the body.
The main source of air pollution in London is from traffic. Diesel and old petrol vehicles manufactured before 2009 are the worst offenders, but even electric vehicles produce a substantial amount of particulate pollution from tyre wear. Vehicles produce a range of harmful waste products such as Nitrogen Dioxide and microscopically small particles. PM 10 and PM 2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size) are so small they can be inhaled deep into the lungs and cross over into the blood stream.
A study has found that the hearts of city dwellers contain thousands of these tiny particles, which are the likely cause of the long-established statistical link between dirty air and heart disease. These particles are also found in brain tissue and are associated with dementia, which is another disease linked to air pollution. Particulates can even cross over into the placenta and may reduce the lung capacity of unborn children by 5%. The tiny particles are also thought to increase the risks to health from diabetes, reduced intelligence and increased miscarriages. Tragically, in 2013 a young girl from Catford, Ella Kissi Debrah, died of multiple asthma attacks; and an ongoing inquest will rule whether her death was caused by air pollution.
However, innovative Londoners are fighting back. There are all sorts of schemes to make London’s air cleaner and streets nicer to walk and cycle along: “Liveable Neighbourhood” schemes, which take a holistic approach to encouraging walking and cycling in an area by creating cycle lanes, closing rat runs and creating “parklets” on the roads; and “School Streets”, where roads are closed at drop-off and pick-up times along with anti-idling awareness schemes. For more on these schemes, see www.mumsforlungs.org
, a great campaigning group formed by mums from Brixton. Greening — planting trees and green screens of ivy — is a mitigation step which can filter out particulates if the screens are high and dense enough. There is also the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which restricts the most polluting vehicles from entering central London and will be expanded to the South Circular in Forest Hill in 2021. Lewisham Council is actively trying to improve air pollution; for more information on Lewisham’s Healthy Neighbourhood scheme starting in 2019, see http://tiny.cc/HealthyLewisham
The best thing you can do to reduce air pollution and protect your children is to reduce or eliminate driving. Young people are shunning the car altogether: In London they are not learning to drive and are using the savings to occasionally hire an Uber or Zipcar vehicle when they need to do something 'grown up', like visit the garden centre. Car use is higher in South London because the transport network is not as good as in North London, but a study has shown that 50% of vehicular journeys in Lewisham could be walked, which would take a huge amount of traffic off the roads. It is not easy to break the addiction to our cars — it takes a huge change in one's mindset; but you can start by making small changes, like having a car-free day every week, and then building on that to try to only drive when absolutely necessary.
If you could walk, cycle or get the bus instead of being driven to school, air pollution would be reduced enormously. The air inside a car is typically more polluted than the air you inhale when you walk or cycle; the particles are so tiny they can get through the car's window seals and accumulate in high concentrations inside the car. The advice when driving is to close all windows and air vents — not easy in hot weather — and even then the concentrations are higher.
If you can afford to make the change to an electric car, it is certainly worth considering. Lewisham Council plan to install 140 more electric vehicle charging points, which would be less than 500m apart, by 2021.
Clean Air for SE23 is looking for parents, teachers or governors to become Clean Air Champions at every school and nursery in Forest Hill. Schools and the Greater London Authority have set targets for clean air and we want to help them achieve these.
If, like me, you haven’t cycled for years and are a bit scared, perhaps you could support us in calling on Lewisham Council to make cycling safer in the borough and improve cycle lanes. The council operates a bike-loan scheme to enable you to try out a bike for a nominal fee (£10) and also offers free cycle lessons, while the London Cycling Campaign group offers a whole host of benefits and services. It is healthiest to cycle or walk on back roads; you can find the best routes to avoid main roads by using the council's Lewisham Air app, which relies on live data from the London Air Quality Network to alert you about pollution hotspots.
We also want to make roads in the area — especially the South Circular, which literally splits up our community — more pleasant to walk along to encourage journeys on foot. There is strong evidence that greening an area improves mental health, encourages wildlife and even increases house prices. We have been talking to Transport for London, who have said that many more trees could be planted along the South Circular. If you live along this road, you might even be eligible for a free tree but only if you agree to caring for it in its first couple of years.
We are seeking permission from TfL to put planters on the railings along Forest Hill station's platforms and “parklets” along the South Circular to make pedestrian journeys more pleasant. The Forest Hill Society already maintains the planters at the station, but we would maintain any new planters on railings with volunteers' help. Planting your front garden with hedges and other plants can also have a positive effect in filtering out pollution (there will be an article dedicated to this in a future issue of this newsletter).
Catford Clean Air are taking a more direct-action approach and are planning a school strike and March for Clean Air on 20th September. With the recent “School Strike for Climate” movement it shows that young people are leading the way on climate and clean air.
The expanded ULEZ, which comes into force in 2021, should have a positive impact on Forest Hill, even if it does not include the South Circular. It is estimated that it will cut pollution by 30% north of the South Circular and 25% south of it. To understand the full impact of the scheme, you could attend the Forest Hill Society AGM in October, where a representative of TfL will explain the scheme and answer any questions.
In the autumn, we hope to undertake our own air-quality monitoring programme to see where and when outdoor and indoor pollution levels exceed safe EU-mandated levels. If you would like to be part of this programme, please get in touch.
To join Clean Air for SE23, see our Facebook page or get in touch via the Forest Hill Society’s website. We are looking for people to help the group; there is so much more we could do, we just need the people-power to do it. We need volunteers with lots of different backgrounds to make this happen, including: green-fingered gardeners and horticulturists, creatives and designers, scientists, fund-raisers, social media whizzes, admin organisers, press and PR champs, campaigners, local-area experts, general helpers and enthusiasts. We need you!
Clean Air for SE23 is having its next meeting at 10am on Saturday 28th September at Forest Hill Library. We will be discussing tree planting along the South Circular, Citizen Science Air Monitoring collaboration with Cambridge University, the impact of the ULEZ, and ideas to improve walking and cycling. Come along to see how you can help and share your ideas.