When I was growing up in the flatness of 1980s East Anglia, on foggy walks to hated school my dad would tell me of the air conditions he put up with living in London in the 1950s. Thick yellowy fog dense enough to reduce visibility to about arm's-length. In the Great Smog of 1952, 62 years ago today, at least 4,000 Londoners died. But those were the bad old days, pre-central heating, when most people had coal smoke pumping out of their chimneys, and those days were ended by the Clean Air acts - at least we thought so. Air pollution to my 1980s self meant industrial accidents, grim editions of First Tuesday featuring asbestos timebombs and iron lungs; something you could easily fathom. We were clean, we had a gas fire and nice warm radiators. Through the 1990s, the move to unleaded petrol and widespread adoption of catalytic converters gave the surface impression that we had improved things further; though near busy roads on still days there remained that persistent slight burning sensation in the eyes and the back of the throat.
The problem is, even though we can't see the pollution (well, not like the residents of Beijing can anyway), the air we breathe particularly in cities is nowhere near as clean as it should be - in busier London streets the pollution average is over twice the World Health Organisation's legal limits. Current estimates for yearly deaths attributable to nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution are around 7,500 in London and 55,000 across the UK (with ozone possibly responsible for at least 5,000 further deaths per year). Yes, that's 7,500 deaths a year, or roughly 20 people a day in London whose deaths are down to air pollution. Bad old days? Did they ever stop, or did we just find a way of hiding the problem?
Pressure group Clean Air in London should be applauded for its tireless work dragging these facts into the public arena. It's only in recent months that newspapers have picked up on what is a major public health scandal of our time. It seems worse because it sounds a relatively easy thing to improve on - hang on, surely you've had clear figures for a while now, and you know it'll be a vote-winner to improve the air quality. So a fleet of new buses, hybrid technology, great, but what - they run on diesel? Isn't that responsible for far higher nitrogen dioxide and particle exhaust emissions than petrol? Who signed off on that?
You can monitor current street-by-street readings for air pollution, here: http://www.londonair.org.uk/LondonAir/Default.aspx