Air pollution: a public health concern

Cycling home over Waterloo bridge a couple of weeks ago I was surprised by my breathlessness and coughing fit that ensued. At first I thought it was a testament to my fitness levels, but turning on the news that night my concern grew from its initial trivial and personal worry.

The cause of all this, as I am sure you have all been reading about, was the unprecedented levels of air pollution which set upon the capital earlier this month.

london smog

Some claimed it was a result of the weather: low wind and high air pressure. While weather contributes to high air pollution episodes, this isn’t an issue to be dismissed.

The UK has broken EU air quality regulations every year since 2010.[1] We often complain about China’s level of pollutants and smog which engulfs its cities. Well, on several occasions between 17th and 24th January, air quality was worse in the UK capital than in Beijing. It is estimated that air pollution causes almost half a million premature deaths in Europe alone.[2]

Hopefully my aggregation of recent news facts should convince you that this is a serious issue.

Indeed, more needs to be done on the international stage with stricter enforcement of legislation. Coming down hard on car companies involved in recent emissions scandals is a good start. Governments also need to be held accountable to ensure they stay under legal air pollution limits.

These reactive punishments will hopefully deter such practices in the future. However, to effectively combat air pollution a proactive policy is necessary; a policy at a political and institutional level but also at a personal one.

In a recent discussion about a circuit-level electricity monitoring technology we are working with, part of its value was neatly summed up by the simple sentence: “you can’t make decisions with your eyes closed.” The same sentence applies here too. A range of air quality sensors and geo-mapping technologies are being utilised to understand where and when pollution is at its worse.

This data alone, though, is not the complete solution to combating air pollution and technology will play a significant role in combating and limiting air pollution in our cities. Chemists and physicists are applying smart technologies to remove toxins from the air. For example, Metal Organic Frameworks, a class of porous nanomaterials, could be used to adsorb certain gasses from the atmosphere or to scrub waste gasses from industrial processes. These porous nanomaterials could also be utilised to make viable alternative fuel sources for transport e.g. Natural Gas Vehicles.

On the topic of transport and vehicles, the proliferation and uptake of battery technology will be significant over the next few years. Cars contribute greatly to the pollutants in the air, and advanced battery technology will enable Electric Vehicles viable for the mass market. Batteries will also be hugely significant in developing  sustainable grid infrastructure, unlocking flexibility in consumption and generation assets.

Air quality is a major public health concern. These technologies will play an important role in reducing the amount of pollutants in the atmosphere.