Putting toxic air into lockdown: A discussion on efforts to tackle air pollution

Categories: Blogs, Data Insights, ADR Northern Ireland, Health & wellbeing

Written by Neil Rowland 7 October 2020

The instigation of a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus in the UK has prompted something of a rethink about how we live our day-to-day lives. The environmental impact of human activities can be illustrated in many ways, but none more so than by the levels of outdoor air pollution that plagues many of our urban areas. The sharp fall in road traffic during the coronavirus lockdown led to notable falls in the levels of nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants. Can this drastic change to our way of life prompt us to clean up our environmental footprint?

The BHF NI assembled a panel of experts from local government, the business sector, and academia to inform these vital questions. Chaired by Connor McCauley, the BBC NI Agriculture & Environment correspondent, the panel for this “Let’s put toxic air into lockdown” webinar began with a discussion from Richard Taylor, Environmental Health and Safer Places Manager at Nottingham City Council, who shared some of the lessons of Nottingham’s multi-decade attempt to improve air quality in the city. He described how changes to the structure of the economy as well as commuting patterns have shaped contemporary air quality issues, and reflected on some of the policies to address these issues, such as the introduction of a workplace car parking levy and upgrades to the transport system. He also noted some of the barriers faced when attempting to implement policies often seen as radical by some.

Next up was I presented our work from ADRC NI and Queen’s University Belfast, which uses various datasets to describe the evolution of air pollution levels in Northern Ireland through time and space. Data from air quality monitoring stations and air pollution modelled exercises point to a reduction in pollution levels since 2001, especially in terms of Sulphur Dioxide and, to a lesser extent, Particulate Matter concentrations. It’s important to note, however, that Nitrogen Dioxide levels remain a concern at some key roadsides where monitoring data are available – a problem that also continues to plague some areas of Nottingham.

Finally, Geraldine Noe, Head of Environmental Sustainability at Business in the Community Northern Ireland (BITC NI), talked about the role of the business community in building a more sustainable future. She highlighted the positive engagement from many businesses in Northern Ireland and outlined how her organisation works with businesses to reduce their carbon footprint.

Each presentation was interspersed with questions from a lively and engaged audience, many of whom voiced a range of concerns around air quality issues in their area, underscoring the point that air quality issues are often highly localised and can be obscured by an overemphasis on the bigger picture. In closing the discussion, Fearghal McKinney, Head of BHF NI, remarked on the need to bring together all available evidence to make the case for more to be done to tackle air pollution problems in Northern Ireland. He also emphasised the need to deal with the growing issue of particulates and their impact on health, echoing an important message from Richard’s discussion which is that the problem of air pollution is an ever-changing one that is in constant need of oversight and innovative solutions.

Through the ADRC NI, my colleagues and I will seek to provide some of this much-needed evidence by analysing area-level air pollution data linked to the Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study (NILS) and the Enhanced Prescribing Database (EPD). This will be the first study of its kind for Northern Ireland, providing unique estimates of the health impacts associated with air pollution in this region and informing policymakers on the potential benefits of pollution reduction measures.

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