Housing – part 7: Pollution in towns

Pollution in Towns

In the old days coal pollution killed

I grew up in Kent some 30 miles from the great London Smog of 1952, which killed 4,000 Londoners in less than a week and, eventually contributed to 100,000 deaths. When we came to York in 1970, pollution from coal fires was still a problem – I clearly remember walking through the Groves and seeing sooty particles land on the bright yellow baby suit of our year-old daughter.

With coal pollution receding, York’s air improved and so did the look of the inner city terraced houses. Since the 1970s they have gradually lightened in colour and their value has risen. Houses that 1948 Plan for York described as “worn out houses” costing a thousand or so pounds in 1970, now sell for over £200,000. That’s a 20 fold increase in real terms.

Now traffic pollution kills

All of the top 20 most polluted streets in York
exceed the annual hourly limit of exposure
of 40 microgrammes per metre cubed.

Now the air in the city has deteriorated again. This time it is from road traffic, less visible but still deadly. Traffic pollutes us with the oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) – small particles that can penetrate deep inside our lungs. In 2012, the City of York’s Low Emissions Strategy estimated that between 94 and 163 people die prematurely each year in York from traffic pollution. All vehicles cause particulate pollution – not just from tailpipes but also from brake and tyre wear. This means electric vehicles are poluting too. They are also heavier so have more tyre wear and can cause as much pollution as petrol cars.

Postscript: Traffic pollution also kills the oceans

Surprisingly, tyre wear has wider implications than the rubber and plastic particulates that lodge in our lungs. It is a source of the plastic pollution of the oceans. The International Union for Conservation of Nature say:

“The tiny plastic particles washed off products such as synthetic clothes and car tyres could contribute up to 30% of the ‘plastic soup’ polluting the world’s oceans and – in many developed countries – are a bigger source of marine plastic pollution than plastic waste.”

Drive your car and pollute the oceans?


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