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Archive for June, 2017

Air pollution more harmful to children in cars than outside

Children are at risk of dangerous levels of air pollution in cars because exposure to toxic air is often far higher inside than outside vehicles. Prof Sir David King, a former UK Government chief scientific adviser, writing for the Guardian, says walking or cycling to school would be much better for children’s health. The warning comes as the UK government faces a third legal defeat for failing to tackle the country’s illegal levels of air pollution. Air pollution is known to damage children’s developing lungs but recent research also indicates it harms children’s ability to learn at school and may damage their DNA.

“Children sitting in the backseat of vehicles are likely to be exposed to dangerous levels [of air pollution],” said King. “You may be driving a cleaner vehicle but your children are sitting in a box collecting toxic gases from all the vehicles around you.” King, who now advises the British Lung Foundation says “It’s been shown that the health benefits of walking and cycling far outweigh the costs of breathing in pollution. If more drivers knew the damage they could be doing to their children, I think they’d think twice about getting in the car.”

A range of experiments, some as far back as 2001, have shown that drivers inside vehicles are exposed to far higher levels of air pollution than those walking or cycling along the same urban routes. Prof Stephen Holgate, an asthma expert at Southampton University and chair of the Royal College of Physicians working party on air pollution, said there was enough evidence to tell parents that walking and cycling exposes their children to less air pollution than driving and increase physical exercise. Children are more vulnerable than adults, because air pollution can stunt the growing of their lungs and it increases the risk of sensitisation which can lead to asthma and other respiratory conditions. “There are multiple benefits to be gained. But parents are confused at the moment because they think there is less pollution in cars than outside, which is not the case.”

Recent research has added to the concern about the impact of air pollution on children, beyond the direct harm to their lungs. A study in Barcelona showed that air pollution reduces the ability of children to concentrate and slows their reaction times. A smaller study, in California, showed higher levels of traffic-related air pollution correlated with increased DNA damage in children.”

The environmental law firm ClientEarth has defeated the ministers twice in the courts over the adequacy of government air quality plans. Ministers’ latest proposals were published on 5 May but were widely condemned as inadequate, and ClientEarth is now suing the UK government a third time.

“Air pollution hasn’t been taken seriously,” said Holgate. “There is a very strange situation where the government has to make laws by being taken to court repeatedly. In my view it is really quite appalling that we haven’t started to deal with this properly and put children’s and adults’ health first.”

[Source: The Guardian, 12 June 2017]

Google Street View cars to map air quality in California

The Environmental Defense Fund and the University of Texas in Austin (UT Austin) along with Google Earth Outreach deployed two Google Street View mapping cars equipped with air quality sensors to measure and chart air pollution in Oakland, California and provide a detailed picture of where people are at greatest risk of breathing unhealthy air at 30 metre intervals.

Over the course of the year-long project, the cars made three million unique measurements while driving more than 22,530 kilometres, with each street being sampled an average of 30 times, creating one of the largest, most spatially precise datasets of mobile air pollution measurements ever assembled.

Conventional assessments of urban pollution rely on data from a relative handful of fixed air quality monitors, emission inventories and computer models to characterize air pollution in a city. There are just three stationary, regulatory-grade air quality monitors which measure urban background pollution levels in Oakland. However, uncertainties remain about the variation in pollution levels in the areas between the monitors, making it difficult to know precisely where dirty air comes from or who is affected.

“The new mobile technology allows us to measure air pollution levels where people actually breathe the air, at street level,” said Joshua Apte, assistant professor at UT Austin, and lead author of the study. “By allowing us to understand how air pollution varies between and even within city blocks, this technique will help policymakers and the public make smarter choices about how to reduce pollution and improve public health.”

[Source: Adam Frost, Traffic Technology Today, 8 June 2017]

What’s in a name?

The Lancet takes on non-communicable diseases

The global health community does not spend much time on branding, which perhaps explains why existing classifications for the three largest groups of diseases are both outdated and counterproductive. The first Global Burden of Disease study1 described infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and injuries.

This grouping reflected a predominantly infectious disease burden in low-income and middle-income countries, which has since tilted towards NCDs. A name that is a longwinded non-definition, and that only tells us what this group of diseases is not, is not befitting of a group of diseases that now constitute the world’s largest killer.

After all, “anything that begins with ‘non’ may be considered a ‘non-issue’ or a ‘non-starter’”.2 Evidence is mounting that some NCDs are partly or wholly communicable. They can be spread through social networks,3 viruses such as hepatitis and human papillomavirus, the built environment,4 cultural and economic conditions, food deserts (ie, areas short on fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods),5 and intergenerational transmission (ie, diabetes and obesity). Furthermore, the present misnomer implies that the causes are individual rather than societal.

This implication is simply not the case: NCDs have largely sociogenetic antecedents, and efforts focused on individual behaviour have little overall effect if the social and policy environments do not change in parallel.

After initiating a global debate on the subject, Luke Allen (Nuffield Department of Primary Health Care Sciences, University of Oxford, UK) and Andrea Feigl (Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, Health Division, OECD, Paris, France) have put forward a new term:

socially transmitted conditions” (STCs)

This label stresses the anthropogenic and socially contagious nature of the diseases: STCs are driven by urbanisation, industrialisation, and poverty, the availability of tobacco, alcohol, and processed foods, and physical inactivity. STCs also share a common set of solutions focused on addressing the complex and often unjust structure of society.

It is important not to absolve individuals of all responsibility for their own health and lifestyle choices, while highlighting the fact that our changing social environment strongly influences the set of choices available. The term “socially transmitted” shifts the implied locus of action upstream. The term also provides clarity by describing the core uniting characteristic of the disease group.

Virtually all diseases are influenced by social factors to some degree, and it is stressed that STCs are distinguished by the common constellation of social drivers that they share. The authors note that congenital and degenerative conditions are imperfectly captured by the new name. Despite these limitations, the preface “socially transmitted” is vastly more transparent, accurate, and tractable than “non-communicable”. Importantly, it also challenges the persisting misconception that individual greed and sloth are driving the global epidemiological transition.

[Source: The Lancet]


  1. Murray, CJ, Lopez, AD, and Jamison, DT. The global burden of disease in 1990: summary results, sensitivity analysis and future directions. Bull World Health Organ. 1994; 72: 495–509
  2. Sridhar, D, Morrison, JS, and Piot, P. Getting the politics right for the September 2011 UN High-Level Meeting on Noncommunicable Diseases. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC; 2011
  3. Christakis, NA and Fowler, JH. Social contagion theory: examining dynamic social networks and human behavior. Stat Med. 2013; 32: 556–577
  4. Hipp, JA and Chalise, N. Spatial analysis and correlates of county-level diabetes prevalence, 2009–2010. Prev Chronic Dis. 2015; 12: E08
  5. Ferdinand, AO, Sen, B, Rahurkar, S, Engler, S, and Menachemi, N. The relationship between built environments and physical activity: a systematic review. Am J Public Health. 2012; 102: e7–13

Air Quality Case Law review published in RMLA Journal

Louise’s review of New Zealand air quality case law, “What Stinks and Why” was published in the April Journal of the Resource Management Law Association. A full copy of her paper is available here:

RMJ Apr17 Air Quality

Louise previously presented this paper at the Environmental Compliance conference, November 2017 where it was billed as a presentation to restore your faith in  New Zealand’s legal system. A copy of that presentation is available here:

New Zealand Air Quality Case Law Review 2016: What stinks and why
Louise Wickham, Emission Impossible