Having trouble seeing the London Eye or the Houses of Parliament in the distance? It’s not your eyes deceiving you—it’s likely due to decreased air quality throughout London, which has led to some days of rolling smog clouds.
The pollution levels throughout the city recently reached their highest level since the Daily Air Quality Index started tracking daily smog levels in 2012.
Fog in London definitely isn’t new, but the toxic levels of pollutants definitely are, and they seem to be causing some confusion and debate.
Reasons for the Pollution
One of the greatest concerns about the pollution spike is when the record levels occurred—on a Sunday night. That time of week typically has the lowest traffic levels.
However, readings from the air quality machines found that pollution levels tied to car emissions were extremely high, even though not many people were out driving.
Instead, another culprit was named: wood-burning stoves.
“[Wood-burning stoves] produce particulates that have a distinctive color and spectroscopic signature that we can pick up very accurately in our machines,” said air pollution expert Gary Fuller.
“And of course, a cold weekend evening is the time when most people with wood-burning stoves like to sit in front of them to keep themselves nice and cozy. We could see that in the impact they had on the air of London last Sunday.”
Wood stoves have been increasing in popularity throughout the UK, but that growth likely won’t lead to many doomsday scenarios the headlines are predicting.
Instead, experts point to the fact that wood-burning stoves contribute a maximum of 10% to particulate levels at their worst, meaning stoves would have to be burned much more frequently to get the air to dangerous fog levels.
That isn’t to say that wood-burning stoves aren’t hurting the environment; it just isn’t as drastic as many people believe.
Another contributor to the poor air quality can’t be controlled: the weather. Leading up to the record bad quality, the air over London had been stagnant for weeks, which meant there wasn’t any wind to blow pollution away.
That, combined with London’s unique geography that leaves it exposed to fogs and pollution, means that it doesn’t take much for pollution levels to skyrocket.
How Bad is the Air Really?
Poor air quality undoubtedly affects the health of people with certain medical conditions, but the extent of the danger can be up for debate.
When level 10 degree of pollution is hit, as it was just a few weeks ago, children and adults with lung problems, adults with heart conditions, and senior citizens are advised to avoid strenuous physical activity.
People with asthma are also warned to use their inhalers more frequently.
However, levels of nitrogen oxide emissions and particulate emissions in London have steadily declined since 1990.
Some groups say that thousands of people die every year due to high levels or particulates and nitrogen oxide, which are believed to stop white blood cells from working at maximum efficiency.
However, others say that nitrogen oxides aren’t really that dangerous and can be inhaled by healthy people in fairly large levels without serious effects.
There are a number of statistics that can be used to measure the effect of poor air quality, which is what has caused much of the confusion in London.
There’s no denying that the air quality is very bad—it’s just a matter of the effects of that air quality that is up for debate.
London’s growing air quality problems have led to potential solutions from a variety of groups. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs has set 2025 as the year London should meet EU air quality standards, but many experts predict it will be closer to 2030.
Civic leaders are advocating for anti-pollution measures, such as increasing parking rates for owners of diesel cars.
London’s air quality has long been a problem, but not much progress has been made to curb the pollution in the last decades and centuries.
A visit from Basket Tuncak, a member of the UN human rights council, could change that: after spending 15 days in the UK, he said there was an “urgent need for political will by the UK government to make timely, measurable and meaningful interventions” about air quality.
That motivation could be the catalyst that moves future measures forward.
London’s recent air quality woes highlight decades of a building problem. Although there is some discussion over the extent of the problem, most people can agree that some kind of change needs to happen.