In a rich nation, where we recognise the value of preventative medicine and seek to protect the vulnerable in our society, we should be able to identify and address the public health crisis in our midst.
This week, we revealed new data which showed that, in 2014, levels of toxic air pollution on Scottish streets, including Edinburgh’s St John’s Road, Queensferry Road and Salamander Street, were dangerously high.
St John’s Road is the second most polluted street in the country with levels of Nitrogen Dioxide pollution 50 per cent higher than the maximum threshold. From January 1, Edinburgh is now in breach of a European legal deadline to have achieved clean air.
Health experts attribute more than 2000 deaths annually in Scotland to exposure to air pollution. That’s more than the number of people dying from alcohol and drug-related problems combined – and ten times the number of people that are dying in road traffic accidents.
In Edinburgh alone, the annual death toll is put at 205.
Today’s air pollution is less obvious then the pea-soup smogs of the 50s but this invisible cocktail of toxicity in the air is seriously damaging our health. Air pollution increases the risk of heart attacks, cancers and strokes, and worsens asthma and other respiratory conditions.
Children, the elderly and people with existing health conditions are particularly threatened.
The financial costs are devastating, with the NHS in Scotland spending between £800 million and £2 billion each year to treat air pollution-related illnesses. Imagine what the health service could achieve with this money if it was not having to deal with this unnecessary drain on the public purse?
The good news is that Scotland’s biggest environmental health problem is almost entirely preventable if we are willing to change our transport habits.
Let’s be clear: Edinburgh’s air pollution is caused by too much traffic.
And let’s not blame the buses: Edinburgh City Council’s analysis shows that, for the majority of spots, it is cars which cause the most air pollution. Put simply, the way we are getting from A to B is seriously damaging our health. Improving transport in Edinburgh is a matter of life and death.
Edinburgh City Council is beginning to take air quality more seriously, with the introduction of 20mph zones and cars soon to be banned from outside some schools. We welcome these steps but they will not be enough on their own to bring about the necessary improvements in air quality.
Edinburgh council needs a radical shift in its transport policy, including introducing a low emission zone as a matter of urgency.
The council also needs to make wise choices about where to locate new shops, houses, and other developments. For example, Waitrose has plans for a new supermarket on St John’s Road – the most polluted strip in Edinburgh – which includes an extra 140 car parking spaces.
It would be absurd for the council to give the green light to these proposals. The plans as they stand will add more traffic congestion and air pollution to one of Scotland’s most polluted spots.
We need to shift our transport thinking to focus on moving people rather than simply moving vehicles. More walking and cycling paths, better public transport options and a low emission zone will make our city a more pleasant place to live and work. These changes will help ease the burden on the health service and ensure we can all breathe a little easier.
Emilia Hanna is Air Pollution Campaigner for Friends of the Earth Scotland