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Air Pollution: Improving an Invisible Public Health Crisis

Air Pollution
22nd June, in the mid-morning traffic in Holborn, London: Highway Maintenance, an ambulance, and a combination of electric and petrol vehicles.

Roar writer Samuel Teale Chadwick discusses the problem of air pollution and how the source of a potential solution was discovered in a King’s College London lab in the 1860s.

In the week following Clean Air Day, the UK rail network entered its biggest wave of strikes since the 1980s. Inflation has worsened grievances regarding rail workers’ pay and conditions, which have not been abated by employers. In this twenty-first century summer of discontent, the resultant traffic jams seem to serve as a wakeup call for the problem of air pollution. With strikes and the risk of stagflation, Britain has again become the ‘sick man of Europe’. Yet air pollution is a multinational illness that knows no borders.

A public health crisis in the making

Air pollution is an invisible yet palpable harm to public health. Across the world, both ambient and indoor air pollution contribute to an estimated nine million deaths per year. In 2016, 40,000 deaths in the UK were attributable to air pollution, which was linked to a number of health conditions. And yet, YouGov polling shows that, perhaps surprisingly, around half of UK adults think air pollution isn’t a big problem, or even a problem at all. 

Professor Stephen Holgate explained, for the in-house podcast of the Royal College of Physicians, that tiny particle matter behaves much like a gas – the particles enter into the body’s circulation and are deposited in blood vessels, the brain, the pancreas, muscle tissue, and cardiac tissue. Cells generate oxidant stress, by switching on a danger signal in the cell. Pollution causes inflammation in the immune system and could even influence our DNA. Its impact accumulates with our inaction. But it does not have to continue in the long term. 

Indoor pollution, too, is a problem. Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous comments on the toxicity contained in a cramped New York nail salon, where children ‘will get asthma from years of breathing noxious fumes into their still-developing lungs…’

Nearly a year ago, the government published documents detailing how the UK can supposedly phase out petrol and diesel cars and vans. The Department of Transport has more recently pointed out that, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is advantageous to have a zero-emission car fleet that is not reliant on importing fossil fuels from abroad. This concept also prompted Germany to discount train tickets this summer, to reduce pollution and fossil fuel imports caused by driving. In the long term, the strategic and health advantages of electric cars will more than pay for initial subsidies.


Clean air is an example of a non-excludable, non-rivalrous ‘public good’. The sooner we cut pollution, the sooner we will all start to benefit. American anthropologist Margaret Mead once remarked, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. Certainly, such a civic-minded group is a necessary condition for change, but it may not be sufficient. So, to guarantee healthier atmospheres, markets, governments, and the wider population need to buy in, literally and metaphorically, to the changes.

So far, the fight against air pollution is faring pretty poorly. There remain challenges to progress. It is a paradox that it will need a lot of collective effort, to make more sustainable forms of transport an effortless default for people. Investment is needed for cycle lanes, and innovation for new, shared transport, for example ‘smart buses’. These are not panaceas to traffic, but potential solutions for pollution. 

Because of the propensity to use polluting cars, individual convenience and collective health are mutually exclusive today. The goals of convenience and public health can align if there is a significant provision of fast, safe, affordable, and most importantly, sustainable, transport. ‘Nudge theory’, as popularised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, shows how interventions can influence people’s choices. Malcolm Gladwell writes about ‘tipping points’ – where a critical mass takes up a habit, that becomes ‘trendy’. Beth Gardiner writes about how we can learn from the example of Berlin, a city that isn’t afraid to experiment with policies and technologies to reduce pollution. In London, Transport for London’s moves to remove bus routes are a step in the wrong direction. Arriving at the right policies for cleaner air will not only avert a public health crisis, but will also help mitigate against the climate crisis, given that the transport sector emits more greenhouse gases than any other sector. 

Building electric vehicles is a carbon and energy intensive process. Will mining lithium help provide a solution, or will it present yet another climate conundrum? In the early 1860s, chemist William Allen Miller realised how much lithium was concentrated in the water wells of Redruth in Cornwall. Samples were sent to the laboratories of King’s College London and found to have very high concentrations of the element. As reported by National Geographic, a Cornish-based company set up in 2016 aims to mine lithium as cleanly as possible and meet a growing global demand. 


If for little else, 2020 was a good year for clean air. There was optimism that homeworking habits would render spikes in air pollution a thing of the past. This optimism was misplaced: the Covid-19 pandemic may have left us with a habit of making surfaces clean, but it is much more difficult to achieve clean air.

In the future, however, there are reasons for optimism. The late Professor Martin Williams led early efforts to measure the extent of air pollution. New technology from Google and from the Blue Map app in China continues this legacy by showing nuanced concentrations of air pollution in an area. Imagine a Google Maps that displayed air pollution data in real time – even if you couldn’t avoid a very polluted area, you would be better informed when advocating for change. There is new technology to remove dirty air from the atmosphere, but it is unclear whether any substantial progress has been made on implementing it. For now, the picture is of a frustrated and polluted city, its traffic jams truly stuck in the past.



Air quality report for your local area, with further resources:

Ask your local MP to join: 

Ask TfL not to axe bus routes.

The Cambridge Mask Company sells pollution masks.



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