Every Breath You Take – Is Probably Killing You

The World Health Organisation recently released figures showing that worldwide there are 7 million deaths each year due to indoor and outdoor pollution (almost split 50/50).  The same report states that ‘9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants’ with women, children and those working outdoors being the worst affected.

The main cause of outdoor air pollution in urban areas is the burning of fossil fuels, whereas in rural areas it is the use of fertilisers and other agrochemicals.   The increase in air pollution also puts a burden on the health services; with air pollution linked to stroke, cancer, heart disease, breathing difficulties and possible brain diseases such as Alzheimers.

The main urban air pollutants of concern are NOx and PM2.5 (PM standing for particulate matter).  Not too many years ago, diesel cars used to throw out black soot from the exhaust.  Now, the particles are too small to see, which means they can get past the body’s barriers and make it further down into the lungs.  The fact that the particles are often covered in chemicals and might have metals adsorbed onto them can also promote an immune response, and lead to heart attacks and strokes.  The small size of the particles also allows them to cross the barrier into the brain, suggesting a possible link with degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimers.


Within most towns and cities there will be some level of pollution monitoring, whether it is published or not is a different matter.  Although, in the UK the main focus is London, as the headlines show, nearly all of us are breathing health threatening levels of major pollutants.   In Northampton, the Green Party recently measured the air pollution across the town and found levels of NOx above legal limits right outside the General Hospital.  In 2016 the Royal College of Physicians released a report stating that there are 40,000 excess deaths each year in the UK due to air pollution.  In addition it causes 6 million sick days a year and has a social cost of £22.6 billion.

You would think that with the overwhelming evidence collected concerning the health impacts of air pollution the governments around the world would be making a big effort to cut pollution.  Not so, particularly not in the EU.  Whilst there have been some noticeable changes; e.g. congestion charges in London, in the main there has been little movement.  Indeed, in the UK, the government has spent £500,000 of tax payers money defending its inaction to provide plans to bring levels of pollution down to those specified by the EU – levels that should have been reached by 2010.  The government’s latest move has been to leave the issue up to local councils to resolve in their area.  Nor do I see the NHS as a whole making big changes.  There are some electric vehicles, lots of travel plans, some car share schemes and quite a few members of staff who cycle or walk to work.  But within most Trusts the majority of the conversation is about how to find more parking spaces for staff and visitors, not about how to reduce pollution or find innovative solutions to reduce car usage.

There is perhaps some hope on the horizon (although you will need a powerful telescope to see it) with surveys showing that younger people are less likely to want to buy a car, more people are working from home and the increase in the use of electric cars (up by 11% in the UK last year).  Statistics also show a slight reduction in the miles travelled, although the number of cars registered keeps on rising – I have a suspicion that a lot more shorter journeys are being undertaken.  But with powerful lobbying from fossil fuel companies and car manufacturers, weak promises from governments to ban the sale of fossil fuel cars some time after they are likely to have stopped being made, and very little commitment to invest in public transport (particularly buses, use of which outside London has declined by more than a third in the last 30 years) I am not convinced that much will change any time soon in the UK.  

Disclosure:  yes I do have a car, I do drive to work and I hate it (my request to work from home 1 day per week was refused).

An adventure on public transport.

As a Sustainability Manager and a self-confessed environmentalist I often feel very guilty about using my car to get to work.  This was obviously not a problem when I could walk to work, but now, at just over 15 miles, it might take a while.

For various reasons, mainly relating to being a one-car family, I decided to try taking the bus to work last week.  This was the first time I had caught a but other than for park and ride reasons in over 15 years.  When I lived in Birmingham buses were so frequent on some routes that the timetable simply stated ‘every few minutes’ and I simply would never contemplate doing other than using public transport.  However, Northamptonshire is a different kettle of fish and public transport in Daventry could certainly be improved.

Still, I was up for an adventure.  I enquired about times and prices by email (why you can’t get this from the website I don’t know – it seems to be possible for National Rail, but not Stagecoach buses) and I received a response in less than an hour including a copy of the timetable.  All was set.  So, on Monday morning I diligently set off round the corner to catch the bus, nearly missed it because I suddenly realised that they might not stop at every stop and I hadn’t seen this one on the timetable, so ran to the next stop.

We went round the housing estates to get to the bus station and then round some more to get out of Daventry and on the road to Northampton.  To be fair, once we were out of Northampton it was pretty much a straight route into town, with only a few stops on the way and we were at the Railway station within a few minutes of the promised time.  The same was true of the journey back.

bus stop2

I can’t complain about the bus, or the drivers or the price – at £6.40 it was fairly comparable to the cost of petrol and not much more than a return would cost on the train from Long Buckby which I would have to drive to because the first bus to the railway station isn’t until 9am – but that is another rant.  However, if there is more than one of you , then the costs are not so comparable.  I did find it a bit disorienting as the windows were steamed up and at times I had no idea where I was, but that was because I was merrily catching up on some reading which is an advantage of going by public transport.

However, the things that put me off and that will stop me making this a regular journey and therefore lessening my green guilt are the frequency of the buses and the time it takes for my commute.  There is only one bus an hour, which means that in order to get to Northampton in time to start at 8:30 then I have to leave home at 6:45.  In the car I can comfortably leave 45 minutes later.  I also have to leave work before 5pm which is not something I can do every day otherwise I won’t get home until after 7pm.  On a normal day in the car my commute from door to door lasts 1 hour 15 minutes maximum.  On the bus it is double that.

Don’t get me wrong, if I didn’t have a car then the bus is definitely a viable way to get to work, but if it can’t tempt someone who longs to be greener from their car, then what chance do the buses on this side of Northamptonshire have of persuading people that actually like being in their car to make that change?

bus stop

Travel – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Last week I attended a conference in London for two (non-consecutive) days.  I decided that the easiest and most environmentally friendly way of getting there would be by train – no worries about getting lost (!! although I managed this anyway) or congestion charges.

Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament

First, the good.  I booked my tickets online and the process went smoothly.  I opted to travel from Long Buckby which is the closest station (I thought about Rugby, but that doubled the price) and managed to get a one day travel card incorporated into the ticket – bargain!

The journey – the first day was fine.  I discovered that the train from Long Buckby went all the way to London, but took about 30 minutes longer than the Virgin Pendolino service that was non-stop from Northampton.  I opted for the Virgin train as I had to be in Lambeth by 8:30.  The train was quite full, but there were some seats.  I got to London on time and negotiated the tube OK.  Coming back I had to catch the London Midland train which stopped at various places on the way.  This was busier (until Milton Keynes) and slower, and then I still had to get home from Northampton.  

The second day was a different story.  I only had to be there for 9am, but the Virgin train was cancelled, so I stayed on the train from Long Buckby.  The train before this one had been cancelled, so it was busier, and there was a break down further down the track, so it was late.  I got into London 30 minutes later and the tube was heaving.  I had to wait for three before I could squeeze on (thank you to the woman who stood in the entrance blocking the way with her suitcase – not!).  When I got to Lambeth the roads were also noticeably busier, but I reached the venue with a couple of minutes to spare.  The journey back involved a race across London to get an earlier, direct train to Long Buckby – again down to standing room only, but better than sitting in Northampton station at 7pm.

The thing that surprised me (not having commuted for years and certainly not to London) was the sheer volume of people that move around each day, each year.  

The tube works amazingly well considering there are about 2.7 million people using it each day (figure taken from Tube Life).  But my question is, why are we making that many journeys?  The figure of 2.7 million doesn’t include those who drive, walk, take the bus, these are just people using the underground in London.  When I look at the trains, these were all full, as were the platforms at the stations we passed through.  Then, when I listen to the travel news, the roads are all full.  When you add the fact that there are 200 million airline passengers each year, it seems as though we are all on the move.

So, my questions are as follows:

Where are we all going?

How many of these journeys are really necessary?

The trains to and from London are packed – why are there not more trains?  In particular, if there is a direct train from Virgin that gets to London by 8am, why is there not one from London to Northampton (OK, I would allow it to stop in Milton Keynes) between 5 and 6pm to take all of the morning commuters home?

Why does it cost twice as much to travel from Rugby to London as from Northampton to London?  Is it because most journeys from Northampton have to be with London Midland, and Virgin, whilst being much faster, is also much more expensive?  (The direct train to Long Buckby with London Midland also stops in Rugby.)

Why is there not a better transport policy in Daventry to take people to and from Long Buckby station so I wouldn’t have to take the car at all?

There is no such thing as an environmentally – friendly diesel car.

In the latest issue of the RSC’s Chemistry World (April 2008/Volume 5/Number 4/Page4) there is a small news article confirming what I have always suspected – there is no such thing as a good diesel car. The article reports on recently published findings which seem to indicate that far from being better for the environment (of which we are a part) low emission diesels may in fact be worse than their soot-chucking predecessors. The smaller sizes of the emitted particles can apparently penetrate more easily into lung tissue. This just goes to prove that the only way to help the environment and ourselves is to leave the car at home and use our feet – after all, that is why we have them.

More Environmentally Friendly Transport?

At the end of September Daventry played host to a showcase for what some would consider to be the next generation of transport. This was featured in the National Press and on the National News (briefly). As this was heralded in the local press for several weeks before, it was with a small amount of excitement that I went to go and look at the travel pods!! I have to admit to a small amount of disappointment (why? look at the photos below).

21st Century Travel?Daventry Travel Pod

Whilst it was publicised as only a prototype one can only hope that the next generation of travel pods will look better and travel a little faster than these golf-buggy wannabees. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for new and innovative transport solutions particularly from a town that several centuries before was a major coaching town, but I am not the type of person that needs convincing. I try to walk wherever I can, but would be quite happy to be able to call up a pod to get to Long Buckby station, but I am not sure that many of the sceptics would be convinced to leave their cars behind when the prototype could be overtaken by anyone not requiring a walking aid (and I saw someone crash the buggy into the grass verge!)

The display that the council had did have some lovely graphics showing what they could look like, and I was informed that there would be a system installed in one of the London airports in the next couple of years, but the monorails looked a little like something that already exists in some American airports. What I wanted to see was something a little more state of the art and modern that would put Daventry on the map, maybe we will get this one day, but it seems a long way off.