Londoners Do Science For Cleaner Air

Sarah Jayne Bell
By Sarah Jayne Bell Last edited 38 months ago
Londoners Do Science For Cleaner Air

Unless you live under a rock or in a hermetically sealed chamber, you probably know that London's air is bad. But how bad is the air that you breathe at your bus stop, on your running route or children's playground? And what can you do about it? Londoners are taking it upon themselves to find out, and citizen science is changing the debate about solutions to London's air pollution crisis.

Air pollution in London

More than 4,000 people die prematurely each year in London as a result of air pollution; it's second only to smoking on the list of things that shorten Londoners' lives. London is in breach of EU regulations on air quality, with nitrogen dioxide the biggest problem, making asthma worse and causing respiratory inflammation in healthy people. In April, environmental campaigners Client Earth won a case in the Supreme Court forcing the UK government to take faster, stronger action to solve the problem. The Mayor of London has also proposed an ultra low emission zone in central London, and plans to switch buses and taxis to low or zero emissions vehicles by 2020.

Air pollution in London is bad even when you can't see the grime. Photo by David Holt from the Londonist Flickr pool.

We know London's air is bad thanks to a network of 104 monitoring stations run by Kings College London on behalf of the Mayor and the boroughs. They monitor particulates, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and other pollutants. Although this gives good coverage of the city, it is limited in the data it can provide about specific locations.

Citizen science

Communities are monitoring air in places that are of significance to them, and using the data they gather to raise awareness among their neighbours and local politicians. Clare Griffiths from Catford got together with six friends and started monitoring nitrogen dioxide concentrations on local streets and outside local schools. They had help from Mapping for Change, a social enterprise based at UCL to support community science. "The results were terrible," said Clare, "but they gave us hard data to be able to talk to our local MP and councillors about taking action."

Resident installing air pollution monitor. Photo from Mapping for Change.

Lynne Jackson and members of the Battersea Society worked with the London Sustainability Exchange to monitor local bus stops, junctions and green spaces. They were shocked at the 'black spot' level readings for nitrogen dioxide at Clapham Junction. Lynne said that the results are important for raising awareness, "once people knew how bad the problem was they could ask TfL to move the bus stop from the black spot junction, or they can do simple things like closing the front door of their shop to keep the pollution out".

Data from citizen scientists monitoring air pollution in their local area is helpful in filling in the gaps between the official monitoring sites. According to Ben Hudson from the London Sustainability Exchange, citizen science provides a level of granularity to the data that is not possible for local authorities to achieve. Getting local people involved in monitoring can be a powerful way of raising awareness and achieving change. Louise Francis from Mapping for Change said "the data gives you an idea of what is happening, but it is also about starting to think what can be done to stop this silent killer".

Cleaning London's air

Reducing air pollution in London is a massive challenge. It is unlikely to be made easier with new projects like a third runway at Heathrow or the Silvertown Tunnel, which is planned to provide a new road crossing under the Thames. Local community groups are gathering their own data to raise awareness and hold politicians to account.

Londoners gather to discuss citizen science and air pollution with the London Sustainability Exchange and Client Earth at the St Bride Foundation on 7 July 2015.

If you would like to get involved in montoring air pollution in your local area, or want to take action to reduce pollution, here are some ideas:

MOVE MORE: Pollution in London is mostly caused by cars, lorries and buses. Walking and cycling for local journeys reduces traffic and emissions. Walking and cycling on quieter routes is pleasant, safe and reduces your exposure to nitrogen dioxide. Walkers are actually less exposed to pollution than drivers, so your lungs will be rewarded for your virtue.

DON'T IDLE: Running an engine while standing still wastes fuel and pumps out unnecessary pollution. Just don't do it. Especially outside a school.

MONITORING: Organisations like the London Sustainability Exchange, Mapping for Change and the Network for Clean Air provide support for community groups. Citizen scientist Clare Griffiths offers the following advice for folks starting out:

1. Get together with other volunteers, who are reliable. You need people who will turn up and stay committed to the programme.

2. Give everyone a good briefing of what to do. For the data to be taken seriously it needs to be collected properly. It is fairly simple to do, but everyone needs clear instructions.

3. Work with a supporting organisation like Mapping for Change, London Sustainability Exchange or Network for Clean Air. They can provide equipment and advice, and can map the results for you, which is helpful to communicate your findings.

Last Updated 13 July 2015