Hold your breath, Brixton: pollution levels dangerously high

Air pollution in Brixton is more than triple the national limit, posing serious health risks to residents, writes Jack Wittels…

The average nitrogen dioxide (NO2) level on the Brixton Road is 145 micrograms per cubic metre of air – more than 250% over the government limit of 40μg/m3.

Brixton also regularly breaches the national hourly limit of 200μg/m3, with this year’s high figure more than double at
457μg/m3, according to data from the London Air Quality Network.

Nitrogen dioxide – a toxic gas emitted by buses and other vehicles – is particularly dangerous for those suffering from asthma: the World Health Organisation (WHO) has linked NO2 to airway narrowing in those suffering from the condition. The pollutant has also been associated with deaths from existing cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.

Stacian Gilbert, a 33-year-old asthmatic nurse whose partner lives in Brixton, frequently suffers from attacks while out
shopping in the area. 

“I can feel a big difference in my breathing as soon as I get to Brixton. It’s very dusty, you can feel the particles blowing on you,” she said.

“My chest starts to feel like it’s getting tighter, but I just ignore it and continue doing my shopping.

“I start to struggle when I’m walking back with my bags. My chest gets tight and then I’m having a full blown attack. I have to call my partner to come and pick me up and take me home or to the hospital. It happens quite often.”

Public Health England has estimated that 112 deaths a year in Lambeth are attributable to air pollution. Annually across
the capital, it is thought to kill over 4,000 people prematurely, according to a study commissioned by the mayor.

Brixton Road’s high NO2 levels are likely to be caused by emissions from the thousands of vehicles that pass along it
each day, particularly buses and black cabs.

In an interview with The Times, Dr Benjamin Barratt, a lecturer in air quality science at King’s College London, explained that
the modern diesel engines used in these vehicles emit a high level of NO2 in stop-start traffic.

Such conditions are common on the Brixton Road. Lambeth Council’s other two
air pollution monitoring sites at Bondway Interchange in Vauxhall and Streatham Green are also breaching national NO2
limits. At Bondway Interchange, this year’s average is 67μg/m3, while Streatham Green’s is 41μg/m3.

Another dangerous pollutant known as PM10 – tiny particles linked to deaths from cardiovascular, respiratory diseases and lung cancer by the WHO – remain within national limits across the borough. Levels do, however, exceed the WHO’s tighter guidelines at all three of Lambeth’s monitoring sites. Green party politicians have criticised Lambeth Council for failing to improve the borough’s air quality, despite being aware of the problem for years.

“The council has not lobbied the mayor or TfL to get better transport links, and it’s also failing to work with other boroughs, which is absolutely vital to tackling the problem,” said Jonathan Bartley, Lambeth and Southwark’s Green Party candidate for the GLA. “We would like to see this as an issue above party politics. But every time the topic of air quality comes up, the council gets very defensive about it – they know it’s unjustifiable and they’d rather not talk about it.”

Jennifer Brathwaite, Lambeth council’s cabinet member for environment and sustainability, said: “Poor air quality is a major concern and we are all aware of the impact of air pollution on public health.

“Lambeth Council works closely with the GLA, TfL and other bodies to monitor air quality… The borough features plenty of wonderful open spaces and parks, but it also has major bus routes which contribute significantly to pollution levels, responsibility for which rests with the Mayor and TfL.”

Responding to the councillor’s comments, Leon Daniels, managing director of surface transport at TfL, said: “Over 1,000 buses on over 50 routes are now fitted with equipment to remove around 90% of nitrogen oxide emissions, including 43 buses on routes 2 and 333 which run through Brixton.

“We have also allocated funding to Lambeth Council and their partners to raise awareness of air quality…We are keen to work even more closely with Lambeth Council and the local community to find ways to further reduce emissions from buses and improve air quality in the borough.”