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The shocking truth about air pollution on the parliamentary estate

(Adobe Stock)

3 min read

In the past, Parliament has passed ground-breaking acts that transformed air quality in this country; from public health legislation passed in the 19th century which regulated smoke from coal in industrial towns and cities, to the 1956 “Great Smog” Clean Air Act and, in recent memory, the 2021 Environment Act, with its binding targets on air quality.

We can be proud of the progress that has been made. Despite this, air pollution remains one of the most serious public health challenges of our time. It is a challenge that deserves cross-party support and the increasing attention of both Houses of Parliament. 

As we increasingly recognise air pollution as a major public health issue, it is right we take a closer look at how well we are doing here, on the parliamentary estate, in providing a safe and clean space for the 3,000 plus people who work on it. In order to raise awareness, the Westminster Commission for Road Air Quality and I set out to measure and record air quality on the parliamentary estate with two state of the art air quality monitors. The results were shocking. 

In my office, nitrogen dioxide levels were on average four times above World Health Organisation guidelines

In my Portcullis House office, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels were on average four times above World Health Organisation guidelines. The WHO annual average limit for NO2 is 10ug/m3. Between July and September, the NO2 level never dropped below 35.18 ug/m3. The peak was 59.28 ug/m3. 

NO2 is a group of reactive gases formed from the burning of fuel from cars, trucks, buses and many forms of plant equipment, and is associated with respiratory diseases, reduced lung function and life expectancy, hospital admissions and lower birth weight.

Levels of particulate matter (PM2.5), the more dangerous particulate group, were generally in line with WHO guidelines of 5 ug/m3 per 24 hour period. The average level on the estate was 5.3 ug/m3. However there were significant spikes, with the highest daily reading coming in at 8.65 ug/m3. During the summer heat, there was a 14-day period where average daily levels of PM2.5 remained at 5.3 ug/m3 and above.

PM2.5 can cause eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation and affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. It is caused by vehicle and plant machinery, alongside cooking, smoking, and the burning of candles or lamps. 

As we deliberate, discuss, and seek to improve air quality in Parliament, we do so in unsafe conditions, breathing unclean air that has a debilitating impact on our health and wellbeing. 
In every area of our country people face this same reality. Professor Alastair Lewis from the University of York has written brilliantly on the impact of air pollution on the poorest in society.

When people are made ill by poor air quality, it is those on low pay with insecure work who are hardest hit. It is also these households in poverty that have the highest exposure to dangerous air, often due to living in less desirable locations, such as near busy roads. Elderly people, pregnant women and children are among those most affected by the harmful effects of dirty air. The time for action is now. So, what can we do?

To improve the air quality on the estate, the government must take bold and brave steps to deal with the society-wide causes of air pollution. We must invest rapidly in electric charging infrastructure, hydrogen fuels, public transport, and move towards a rapid de-carbonisation of United Kingdom-wide infrastructure. 

At every opportunity I have raised the levels of air pollution in Parliament; not to scare people, but to keep the conversation high on our agenda. The fact of the matter is that whoever you are, wherever you are, we all are impacted by dirty, polluted air. I believe that every person has the inalienable right to breathe clean air and it is our duty as legislators to take the necessary steps to guarantee this. 

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