Pollution levels in Britain are dangerously high and set to remain that way for days as dust blows in from the Sahara Desert. Asthmatics, and all those suffering from lung or heart conditions have been warned to stay indoors and definitely not to exercise in the open. Government advice is for schoolchildren to be kept inside during playtime and lunch breaks. The elderly are also more at risk and cautioned to avoid exertion.
The thick smog, reminiscent of “pea-souper” industrial days, is worst in the regions of eastern England and the Midlands, covering a wide and heavily populated swathe. The high rise towers of the Canary Wharf development in East London have been barely visible all day. Pollution levels of “Very High” will affect the entire country. The toxic storm has been caused by a combination of light winds from the south-east, which have picked up the Saharan sand, and the continental air flow.
The dangerous breezes contain nitrogen dioxide and ozone, as well as the particles of desert dust. Norfolk saw readings of 10 today on the pollution scale, with 10 being the maximum. Levels of 9 have been observed across southern England and Wales.
In the event of such high pollution, asthma sufferers are advised they may need their inhalers more often. 3.6 million are asthmatic in England. People whose cars have been covered in fine layers of the red dust are more aware than most of the density of the sand in the air. The Prime Minister’s car, parked outside Number 10 Downing Street, was one of those coated in the dust. It is not altogether unusual to see “red rain” or Saharan sand fall on Britain, it happens about four times a year, but this time it is combined with very high levels of pollutants.
Not all of the emissions have blown in from abroad. The UK was warned by the European Commission this February that they had not done enough to lower nitrogen dioxide levels, especially near busy roads. Legal proceedings have been launched. The Department of Food, Agriculture, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) who is responsible for these targets, said that the challenge was difficult, but they had improved significantly in the past few years.
No official body is recommending the wearing of face masks as is commonly seen in Asian cities. A campaigner from Friends of the Earth, Jenny Bates, said that this situation was a “national disgrace.” Air pollution is responsible for seven million deaths per year according to the World Health Organisation. A spokesman from Public Health said it was clearly serious, but it was important not to “get it out of proportion.” It is expected to dissipate by Friday.
The last time there was a smog of this density was back in 1952. As people in London struggled to keep warm that December they heaped more and more coal on their fires, exacerbating the problem. The city was impenetrable for five days, and it led to the Clean Air Act of 1956 and the planting of the many plane trees which are now a familiar feature of many London streets.
The worst polluted city in the world is Ahvaz in Iran, although we often see footage of the terrible air pollution in China, India and Mexico City. Ahvaz has a layer of orange smog hanging over it that is thick and perpetual. It is home to Iranian oil production as well as associated industries such as metals and petrochemicals. The Iranians blame the Americans for the pollution and say it emanates from the presence of the US forces.
The current Sahara dust pollution blanking out large parts of Britain is less extreme than other examples, but still worrying enough for people to be told to stay inside.