Toxic fumes threaten our chil­dren. Why don’t we act?

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - George Mon­biot

Imag­ine that you could buy, in shops across the coun­try, can­is­ters con­tain­ing toxic gas. Imag­ine that some peo­ple walked the streets, squirt­ing this gas into the face of ev­ery child they passed. Imag­ine that it be­came a craze, so that a child couldn’t walk a me­tre with­out re­ceiv­ing a face­ful. Imag­ine that, while a single dose was un­likely to cause se­ri­ous harm, re­peated doses dam­aged their hearts, lungs and brains, af­fect­ing their health, their in­tel­li­gence and their life chances. It would be treated as a na­tional emer­gency. Sales of the can­is­ters would im­me­di­ately be banned. The po­lice would be mo­bilised. If ex­ist­ing laws against poi­son­ing chil­dren were deemed in­suf­fi­cient, new leg­is­la­tion would be rushed through par­lia­ment. It’s not hard to pic­ture this re­sponse, is it? Yet the mass poi­son­ing is hap­pen­ing. And noth­ing changes.

Ac­cord­ing to a pa­per in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­search and Pub­lic Health, burn­ing fos­sil fu­els is now “the world’s most sig­nif­i­cant threat to chil­dren’s health”. Their life chances are com­pro­mised be­fore they are born. Toxic par­ti­cles from ex­haust fumes pass through the lungs of preg­nant women and ac­cu­mu­late in the pla­centa.

Among the likely im­pacts of re­peated poi­son­ing, re­searchers now be­lieve, is a “huge re­duc­tion” in in­tel­li­gence. A pa­per pub­lished last year found that “long-term ex­po­sure to air pol­lu­tion im­pedes cog­ni­tive per per­for­mance in ver­bal and math tests”. Pol­lu­tion stunts the growth of lungs as well as minds, nds, rais­ing the risk of asthma, can­cer, stroke and heart fail­ure.

How will this af­fect the Diesel Gen­er­a­tion: in other words, those born since 2001? This was the year in which Tony Blair’s gov­ern­ment, rather thant than de­liv­er­ing the in­te­grated pub­lic trans­port it had long promised, promised, sought to tweak the car­bon emis­sions from cars by tax­ing diesel en­gines at a lower rate than petrol en­gines. Diesel cars might pro­duce a lit­tle less car­bon diox­ide, but they re­lease more ni­tro­gen ox­ides and par­tic­u­lates, a ten­dency ex­ac­er­bated by the man­u­fac­tur­ers’ cheat­ing. An en­tire gen­er­a­tion – 18 years of births – has been en ex­posed to the re­sults of this folly.

Given that re­searchers have found an as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween air pol­lu­tion and child­hood men­tal ill­ness, could this help ex­plain the ris­ing preva­lence of psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders among English chil­dren since the first ma­jor sur­vey, in 1999? A study con­ducted in Lon­don sug­gests that peo­ple with the high­est ex­po­sure to pol­lu­tion also have a greater risk of de­vel­op­ing de­men­tia. Might we have trig­gered a de­men­tia time­bomb, that could ex­plode in 40 or 50 years?

The only dif­fer­ence be­tween the ab­surd sce­nario with which this ar­ti­cle be­gan and re­al­ity is in­tent: no one means to poi­son chil­dren with their ex­haust fumes. But the ab­sence of a mens rea makes no dif­fer­ence to their health. The one-tonne me­tal can­is­ters are still on sale (though the num­ber bought has dipped slightly in the past year) and toxic gas is pumped into our chil­dren’s faces with ev­ery step they take. Es­pe­cially on the way to and from school. These are the times at which chil­dren in­hale the most par­tic­u­lates (es­pe­cially if they are driven – ex­po­sure is much greater in­side a car than on the pave­ment). Hor­ri­fy­ing re­cent data also re­veals that pol­lu­tants from nearby roads ac­cu­mu­late in class­rooms, lead­ing to higher lev­els in­side than out. Due to the con­tin­ued fail­ure of suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments to ad­dress this cri­sis, tak­ing chil­dren to school dam­ages their minds.

This is a na­tional emer­gency. As 90% of the world’s chil­dren are now ex­posed to dan­ger­ous lev­els of air pol­lu­tion, it is an in­ter­na­tional emer­gency. So why don’t we re­act as we would if the poi­son­ing were de­lib­er­ate, and ban the sale of toxic gas can­is­ters? In the UK, the gov­ern­ment says it will end the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans (though not buses and lor­ries) by 2040. An­other gen­er­a­tion poi­soned. In the lat­est bud­get, it ex­ac­er­bated the prob­lem, an­nounc­ing a fur­ther £30bn for roads, cre­at­ing more space for toxic gas flasks.

When the gov­ern­ment won’t act, only pal­lia­tives remain. In des­per­a­tion, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of Lon­don, has started in­stalling air fil­ters in nurs­eries annd and class­rooms. It’s as if, rather than vac­ci­nat­ing chil­dren against diph­the­ria, they were is­sued with face masks.

Af­ter the Lancet com­mis­sion on pol­lu­tion and health re­ported, in 2017, that pol­lu­tion kills more moore peo­ple than to­bacco – and three times as many as Aids, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and malaria com­bined – you might have hoped that gov­ern­ments, gov­ern­ments, de­vel­op­ment agen­cies and health char­i­ties would have made it a pri­or­ity. But they remain fo­cused on com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease, while ig­nor­ing the greater, man­made threat. Where is Save the Chil­dren? Where is Médecins Sans Fron­tièr? Where are the phi­lan­thropists seek­ing to elim elim­i­nate deaths from am­bi­ent air pol­lu­tion, as Bill and Melinda Gates and oth­ers seek to wipe out malaria?

When the World Heart Fed­er­a­tion built a global coali­tion to con­quer heart dis­ease and stroke, and when the char­ity Vi­tal Strate­gies launched a sim­i­lar ini­tia­tive on car­dio­vas­cu­lar ill­ness – with Gates, Bloomberg and Zucker­berg money – they over­looked air pol­lu­tion, even though it kills more peo­ple than the fac­tors they em­pha­sised (such as salt and trans fats). The same weird si­lence af­flicts the UN task­force on non­com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases and the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s global ac­tion plan. Pol­lu­tion is off the agenda. Why?

I think there may be three rea­sons. The first is that there is no heroic nar­ra­tive built around tack­ling air pol­lu­tion, while there are plenty (Louis Pas­teur, Alexan­der Flem­ing, John Snow) sur­round­ing the fight against in­fec­tion. The sec­ond is that the nec­es­sary in­ter­ven­tions are not dis­crete but sys­temic. Rather than dis­tribut­ing mosquito nets or re­duc­ing the salt in pro­cessed food, you must change en­tire trans­port and in­dus­trial sys­tems. The third is that, while no one has a com­mer­cial in­ter­est in spread­ing tu­ber­cu­lo­sis or po­lio, there is a mas­sive global lobby, com­prised of fos­sil fuel, mo­tor and in­fra­struc­ture com­pa­nies, block­ing ef­fec­tive ac­tion against pol­lu­tion and the tech­nolo­gies that cause it. If you take on pol­lu­tion, you take on the com­bined might of some of the world’s most pow­er­ful in­dus­tries. Pol­lu­tion is the tan­gi­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion of cor­rup­tion.

The solution is po­lit­i­cal: con­fronting the power of this lobby and over­turn­ing the gov­ern­ments it has cap­tured, then re­plac­ing pri­vate cars and ever-ex­pand­ing roads with elec­tric mass tran­sit, walk­ing and cy­cling, and im­pos­ing strin­gent con­di­tions on dirty in­dus­tries. We have been aban­doned by those who claim to de­fend our chil­dren from dis­ease. So we must mo­bilise.

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