Chest pain living in London? You need a political solution, not a medical one

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The Big Smoke is a place where the heart, and the desire for money and comfort, rules without challenge over the lungs. In 21st Century London, Londoners are well aware that they are being killed off, that their children are being damaged from birth and in their early infancy, by the silent killer from the vehicles that are driven around the city. However they accept the compromise to their health and to those young ones that they apparently cherish, in return for the ability to drive their vehicles on cheap diesel.

London has long been a city bathed in the dust and smoke caused by the burning of coal, the energy source that kept the city booming over and ticking. According to John Vidal, “In 1285, King Henry 111 was so revolted by the stench of burning coal combined with the whiff of London’s slaughterhouses and latrines that, like other rulers before and since, he set up a commission to investigate the quality of the air. When it reported 20 years later, he banned the burning of coal, ruling that offenders would face “grievous ransoms”.  His law was widely ignored.”

In the 1950s great smogs occurred, smog being a mix of fog and smoke. Visibility was reduced to a few yards. Taxis found themselves on pavements, buses needed men with lanterns walking in front of them to guide them and the only way that pedestrians knew there were other people around them was because they could hear them coughing. People collapsed in the street and died. Thousands died. This extreme experience motivated Parliamentarians to push for legislation reducing the amount of coal burning that took place in the city.

Knowing the story of the 1950s, and the actions taken to clean up the city’s air, when I arrived in London at the beginning of the twenty-first century, I was under the impression that the air in London had improved somewhat thanks to a raft of EU regulations and the decline of coal power and the manufacturing industry. More fool me. The air in London may be clearer, but the levels of Nitrogen Dioxide in the air are sufficient to cause significant damage to Londoners’ lungs and to kill them off. Nitrogen dioxide inflames lungs, stunts the growth of children, and causes asthma and lung cancer. It passes directly through the lungs into the blood and causes stroke and heart attack. The lungs of children in East London living close to polluted roads are stunted because of the pollution.

The reasons for the pollution are manifold. There’s the amount of traffic on the roads, which experts seem to think is the main cause. Saharan winds bringing sand can exacerbate things. Some reckon that the airplanes passing overhead don’t help.

In more recent years as I get older, I have felt the effects of pollution more keenly, I feel a dull pain in my chest, whenever I have to leave the house and take a walk down the high street. I’m not the only one to experience this. In April 2014 an epidemic of chest stress, constriction and suffocation, of the like I’m experiencing now, spread across the capital. Saharan sands swept over the southern reaches of Britain, giving a fine coat to vehicles and buildings. The African dust combined with exhaust fumes and fog, to create a palpable orange haze, smogs so bad school children were forbidden from playing outside those with chest and heart conditions were advised to stay indoors and those determined to go about their everyday business had coughing fits and received angry looks from people on the tube.

2014, according to John Vidal, was the year that Londoners woke up to the silent killer in the air. He remembers April 2014: “People woke to warnings that the air was full of dust from the Sahara desert. Cars were orange. Windows were dirty. David Cameron abandoned his morning jog but dismissed the cause as a ‘naturally occurring weather phenomenon’. Emergency services were hit by a surge in 999 calls, complaints about breathing problems rocketed and people were urged to avoid strenuous outdoor activity as the dust enveloped the city.” Five months later in September, there was more smog. There was a bluish glow to the London skyline, at least, when looking at the City from Canary Wharf, from where it appeared that the Shard and the mighty glass towers to the north, were submerged under sea water. The newspapers reported air pollution the result of low pressure which draws in pollution from the continent”. I felt physically ill during those days, I developed an infection in my chest, a response, I surmise to this spell of pollution.

Buts its not just the health problems. I can’t go for a walk anywhere in London without having to traverse several dirty fat roads. London is full of these horrible places like Clapham Common, which look great on paper. Oh look, loads of green space! But when you get there you find the grass is criss-crossed by roads and traffic, it’s disgusting. Photos of the early twentieth century shows streets where children used to play freely with each other. They can’t do that anymore, because they’d be run over.

On a lighter note, American tourists are fascinated by the black bogies they have to pick out of their nostrils at the end of each day. Really though, I’m quite sure I’m going to be one of those statistics, the death from pollution ones, not the bogey ones.

I’m quite angry about the amount of pollution that I and everyone else has to breathe in, and I want to see a reduction in the amount of traffic on the roads. I’d be quite happy for controls to be bought in, even if it made my life a little more uncomfortable. It seems sheer stupidity not to take some measures, and an effacement of the future of the younger generation to accept or support the status quo. What is the sense in trying to recreate the atmospheric content of Venus on Earth? Jesus, what is the point?

There has been some progress. Smoking was banned inside most buildings in 2007. Ken Livingstone was on the right tracks, with the congestion charge, and ploughing the money back into public transport. Sadiq Khan, is making the right noises, but doing nothing apart from political gestures and soundbites. I see Khan as the quintessential spineless Labour politician, who brings up issue like pollution and peoples’ health, to score political points, but has no spine to do anything about it, for fear of what the conservative self-serving majority of Londoners would think, were he to curtail what they perceive as their right to poison the air for everyone else. At the very least we should put as many roads as possible underground. They’ve done that in the centre of Madrid, and very pleasant it has become, though its bankrupt the Council.

I do realise of course, though, that I am in the minority. In the main Londoners don’t give two fucks about pollution. They, in their own little world, care more about the creature comforts and the immediate implications on their daily routines and business. Caring about pollution or the health of their children, to many Londoners, is akin to announcing oneself as a socialist. London’s car owners are self-centred short-termists. The primacy of the car in London has meant Londoners have become atomised self-centred, they think they have the God given right to drive round where they want, whenever they want, spewing out their exhaust for everyone to breathe in. And of course, bully boy Boris supported this perceived right, reversing, in part, Livingstone’s congestion charge in the west end. This was one for London’s self-serving shortsighted car owners, one for the NIMBYists and the petty bourgeois. Boris of course has done well in unifying this group behind him (although Farage did a lot of the ground work).

You can see more acceptance of the way in which Londoners are given the right to pollute the air, in Canary Wharf, where if you take a walk down the main streets in this private complex, you see the ridiculous sight of hordes of ‘fuck you’ city workers smoking next to three foot sandwich board signs which clearly state ‘no smoking’. These smokers, disregard the regulations with impunity, polluting the walkways for anyone who cares or needs to walk down North and South Colonnade. I would imagine, given the number of ‘do not smoke’ signs that are mounted on the pavements of North and South Colonnade, that the powers that be in Canary Wharf have some kind of legal responsibility to protect workers from the effects of smoke, however they seem to lack any kind of appetite for policing that responsibility, judging from the hordes that regularly flout the regulation. Consequently you cannot walk down North or South Colonnade without breathing in a whole pile of smoke.

Canary Wharf isn’t the only kind of place this is happening. People walking to work in London can find themselves walking behind people smoking and vaping, and finding the effluent being blown in their face. One commuter said, “I get so much more smoke/vape blown in my face that I have begun glancing at people’s hands when I am behind them to make sure that they aren’t vaping/smoking and I’m going to have to dodge a plume of smoke.” Another said, “I am quite tired of having smoke blown in my face too while walking from the train station to the office. So much so that I need to speed up or hold my breath for some periods.”

Meanwhile I should really make that appointment with a doctor to discuss my chest pains, it’s just that what’s he going to say to me? Don’t walk near busy roads. Maybe he might advise me of the findings from a recent study which suggest that air pollution can be a third lower on the inside of the pavement, compared to the kerbside. I might be advised to not leave the house, or perhaps leave the city. The problem is, my health problem needs a political solution, not a medical one, but no politician in power is ever going to provide that solution, because we are married to our cars and cheap diesel, atomised self-centred lives that car ownership provides, and the health of our children, our lungs and everyone’s hearts, including my own, will just have to carry the cross.


People smoking/vaping on the way to work, post on Reddit London by glovemachine, 2016.

Press Association (2015) ‘Poisoned’ air killing residents near Heathrow, says John McDonnell, The Guardian.

London pollution: heart disease and asthma sufferers should ‘stay indoors’, says Public Health England, video, The Guardian, 2nd April 2014.

Air pollution: England and Wales hit by first day of smog, as it happened: Maximum levels of air pollution sweep large swathes of England and Wales after powerful dust storm in the Sahara, The Guardian, 2nd April 2014.

Ian Sample, 2nd April 2014, What is causing the UK’s high levels of air pollution? Pollution originating in the UK and Europe has combined with dust from the Sahara to create particularly unhealthy conditions, the Guardian.

‘Poisoned’ air killing residents near Heathrow, says John McDonnell, The Guardian, 10th October 2015.

Matthew Taylor and Sandra Laville, Revealed: thousands of children at London schools breathe toxic air, The Guardian, 24th February 2017.

Modern Times in London, Langdon Jones.

Damian Carrington, The truth about London’s air pollution, the Guardian, February 2016.

Nicholas Cecil, Walk away from kerb to avoid fumes in London, adviser urges, The Evening Standard, 2014.

John Vidal, BAD AIR: IS THE ATMOSPHERE THAT LONDONERS BREATHE KILLING US?, The Centre for London, Essay, 1st December 2015.


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