Air pollution: It’s clear Edinburgh has a real problem – Christine Jardine

Christine Jardine MP is taking to the streets of Edinburgh this week to help monitor air pollution amid growing concern about its effects on our health.
Evidence of the harmful, and potentially deadly, effects of air pollution has been growing (Picture: Jon Savage)Evidence of the harmful, and potentially deadly, effects of air pollution has been growing (Picture: Jon Savage)
Evidence of the harmful, and potentially deadly, effects of air pollution has been growing (Picture: Jon Savage)

If you see me standing somewhere in Edinburgh West this week with a blue box in one hand and a phone in the other and you think I’m up to something… you will be right.

But it’s not as strange as it looks, I am actually gathering data to help attack two of the biggest health problems we face.

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And one is a particular problem in the part of Edinburgh which I represent and live in – breathing air that is far from clean.

So I jumped at the chance of taking part in a new British Heart Foundation campaign to highlight how air pollution damages heart health.

For example, did you know that air pollution is made up of tiny toxic particles which can cause harm to your heart and circulatory system when you breathe them in? That can then cause you to either develop health problems or, worse still, if you already have a heart or circulatory problem it can put you at increased risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Frightening, isn’t it? Particles invisible to the naked eye, that you don’t know you are breathing them in and which could be doing untold damage.

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Deadly air pollution causes one in 29 deaths in Edinburgh
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Alarmingly, around 11,000 air pollution-related deaths are due to heart and circulatory diseases each year in the UK.

But in Edinburgh, it is an issue that I know from speaking to my constituents that we are already aware of and looking for action on from our authorities.

And all too often in recent years, the poor quality of the air that we breathe every day has meant that our city merits a place in the headlines that we would rather not occupy.

It’s a problem that regular readers of my column will know that I am all too familiar with and have been campaigning on for more than a year now, and constituents bring to me regularly.

Worst air pollution of any Scottish city

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For example, just last week I received letters from a primary three class who had been doing a traffic survey on what you might expect to be a relative quiet road in Cramond. In ten minutes they recorded 72 cars, ten vans and two aircraft. That’s not all. This month, another set of alarming data showed Edinburgh had the worst air pollution of any Scottish city. And the stretch of road directly outside my office is one of the most toxic.

The analysis from the Centre for Cities claims Edinburgh also has the highest proportion of deaths attributable to pollution in Scotland, ahead of Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen.

More than one in 29 deaths are caused by air pollution here, with 157 deaths being directly linked to the pollutant PM2.5.

These terrifying figures make it clear that we must be taking fast and direct action to tackle pollution in our city. The council’s City Mobility Plan includes a number of initiatives to reduce the need for private car use.

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Last year they revealed their city centre plan and proposals for a Low Emissions Zone (LEZ) which was the subject of a controversial public consultation process and pressure to review its boundaries.

That controversy seems in many ways inevitable when you consider the competing and conflicting pressures.

The public want less traffic and cleaner air but fear if the plans get it wrong there could be a risk of concentrating pollution along hotspots in the west of Edinburgh, such as St John’s Road and Queensferry Road.

And then there is the issue of people in the outskirts who often feel there are few options open to them but to take their cars in.

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They want more buses. Park and Ride. Linked-up thinking. Something approaching a city-wide LEZ.

Pressure on NHS

In all of this, I have urged councillors to listen to the Edinburgh residents before coming to a decision later this year.

And to their credit, they appear to be doing that with events like one later this week for small businesses, although it will be the outcome of the consultation on which everyone’s attention will be focussed.

It is, after all, their health that is at issue. But it is also a wider problem in Scotland. In the West, where I am from originally, cardiovascular disease is far from infrequent.

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In my own family, we have an unenviable history of heart and stroke deaths at an all too early age.

Which is why I am only too happy to be brandishing the little blue box and phone which I have on loan from the British Heart Foundation.

I’ll be using it to track pollution in a variety of areas in my constituency from parks and open spaces to busy commuter routes and shopping centres.

I’ll be joined by other MPs from across the UK doing exactly the same to gauge just how serious the problems might be in our constituencies and what needs to be done.

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The data we collect will then be submitted to the University of Edinburgh for analysis and to create an accurate picture of air pollution in the UK.

At a time when the pressure on our NHS is growing almost daily, there is of course an issue of finding a way of relieving the pressure these heart and circulatory problems can cause.

But more than anything else, this fantastic BHF initiative is about increasing awareness and helping us improve the quality of the air we breathe and the health we enjoy.

Christine Jardine is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West