Alison Johnstone: Clean transport for public health

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Last week, I met experts in heart research at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. They talked to me about their concerns over Scotland’s high air pollution levels and the deadly impact poor air quality can have on our health.

Air pollution in the UK is illegally high – and I don’t mean figuratively speaking. Recently, the UK Government was successfully sued for letting pollution levels hike beyond limits set in European Union law.

Pollution levels in Scotland too continue to break both international and national safety standards. In Edinburgh, the council has five designated air quality management areas, where air is so dirty we need to keep a close watch to make sure it’s safe for people to breathe.

British Heart Foundation research found that the tiny particles from polluting engines get sucked directly into our lungs and our bloodstreams. For people whose hearts are already in a weakened condition, this can trigger a fatal heart attack.

According to estimates, 7.1 per cent of men and 5.3 per cent of women are living with heart disease in Scotland. That means thousands of people have to worry about whether it’s safe for them to step outside the house on a day when pollution levels are high.

There are a number of clear steps that we could take to solve this problem. Emissions from diesel engines are particularly dangerous for heart disease patients, and the British Heart Foundation recommends fitting diesel engines with filters. That seems like a pretty sensible idea to me.

We should also continue to improve the way in which pollution levels are monitored and reported. Information on when and where air quality is dangerous helps people manage their illness and avoid risks.

Research into the causes and cures of heart disease save thousands of lives every year, and using new technology and tests can also help with healthcare costs. Developing research activity is crucial for treating heart disease, and we should make sure our universities and research institutes are properly funded to do their work.

All these policies would go a long way in protecting people from the deadly effects of dirty air. But there is only one way to really address the root of the problem. Eighty per cent of air pollution is caused by vehicles on the roads, so let’s provide the cleanest public transport and attractive alternative options to car travel.

The Scottish Greens have continuously called for more funds to be put towards walking and cycling, as supporting these modes of transport would cut emissions and improve health.

Investing in buses, walking and cycling is also a transport justice issue. When 40 per cent of households in Edinburgh don’t have access to a car we need to make sure we’re providing them with the support and options they need.

Despite all this, the Scottish Government continues to treat investment in cleaner transport as “nice to have”, not a crucial change we must make. People’s lives are being limited by the state of our environment and we need to talk about it in honest terms. It’s not just pollution, it’s a public health crisis.

• Alison Johnstone is Green MSP for Lothian