Breathe it in: row breaks out over town’s pollution

Mozmil Hussain, Penny Shearer, Sally Boys and Andy Durling (Photo by Jon Rigby)
Mozmil Hussain, Penny Shearer, Sally Boys and Andy Durling (Photo by Jon Rigby)

A row has broken out after a report found Eastbourne has some of the highest levels of air pollution in Britain.

The town is one of the worst offenders for breaching World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for toxic air, according to a recently released study by the Royal College of Physicians.

It reports Eastbourne has on average 15 micrograms of toxic particulates – known as PM2.5 – per cubic metre of air. The WHO recommended limit is 10, so people regularly breathe in a dangerously high 50 per cent more of the lethal particles than is believed to be healthy – equivalent to London levels.

But the council has disputed the report, stating the levels are below UK and EU regulations and saying Eastbourne has been made to appear in a ‘negative light’ as a ‘pollution hotspot’ because it exceeds levels only recommended by the WHO.

In a letter to the Royal College of Physicians, leader of Eastbourne Council David Tutt wrote, “I was rather dismayed to discover that once again, Eastbourne’s air quality has been called into question by the national press using WHO recommended limit values.

“We, like all our fellow local authorities, are working hard to try to continuously improve our air quality. However, it would appear that because one of our air quality monitoring stations is part of the DEFRA network of AURN’s (Automatic Urban and Rural Networks), we are being unfairly penalised because we do not meet the WHO’s more stringent ‘recommended limit values’.

“The UK local authorities use DEFRA’s Technical Guidance (TG16) which includes the United Kingdom’s Air Quality Objectives and Pollutants.

“The air quality annual mean objective included in these regulations for the UK for PM10 is 40µg/m3 and not the WHO’s recommended limit value of 20µg/m3. Whilst the WHO has a recommended limit value of 10µg/m3 for PM2.5 there is no annual objective in England for PM2.5.

“The LAQM for PM2.5 is worded as: working towards reducing emissions/concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

“Whereas we appreciate and would like to further lower our levels of air pollutants we do currently meet the UK air quality objectives.

“Unfortunately this fact does not get picked up by the press or the general public; instead it is the WHO recommended limit values that get highlighted and Eastbourne is made to appear a ‘pollution hotspot’.

“If current UK Air Quality Objectives need tightening then the UK government and WHO need to agree on what those objectives should be, in order that data collected, recorded and presented is consistent across the country and corresponds with WHO limits.

“I would very much like to discuss this matter further with you or a representative from the Royal College, as I am concerned Eastbourne is being continuously painted in a negative light.”

Responding to the council, Eastbourne Friends of the Earth said, “We suggest it would be much more constructive of the council to avoid a confrontational approach to the RCP report and stop querying the air quality data it uses. Such an approach just confuses people and undermines air quality research in general.

“Instead, the council should engage in an honest, open debate about the true nature of air pollution in Eastbourne, as well as engaging with local community groups about practical ways of improving air quality, such as those described in detail in the RCP’s very comprehensive and thorough report.

“Dirty air is now the biggest single environmental cause of ill-health and premature death in the UK.

“Even Parliament recognises air pollution in this country as a public health emergency.

“So dealing with it is a priority, especially as maximising public health is now extremely important as a way of minimising the growing pressures on NHS services due to the austerity cuts imposed upon them.”

In August a major incident was declared as a mysterious ‘toxic haze’ descended on Birling Gap, causing the area to be evacuated and residents told to stay in their homes.

Hundreds of people suffered the effects of it, with symptoms including streaming eyes and sore throats, and tents were set up at the DGH to treat the influx of patients.

But, according to the authorities, no one knows the source of the gas or even what it was – and it is likely no one ever will.

More recently residents in Seaford were told to stay in and keep their windows shut after a ‘noxious odour’ which was said to smell like burning plastic emerged on October 27.

Emergency services were called but could not find the cause of the smell – which left some with burning eyes and nausea.

Robert Price, of Clean Air Eastbourne – a project he set up to monitor air pollution in the town – said, “It’s amazing no one seems to have collected samples of the air during these incidents.

“With no data, it’s very hard to find the source and prevent it happening again. When the Birling Gap incident happened we saw a massive spike in ozone at the official monitoring station at Lullington Heath, so it could be related, but without more data we can’t be certain.”

Robert set up Clean Air in August after being involved in a citizen science project with Eastbourne Friends of the Earth and discovering what he says were illegal levels of pollution by St Andrew’s School off Seaside.

Now he is hoping to collect as much data as possible. He says the project currently has six live monitors around town, and always welcomes donations or people willing to host a monitor at their property.

To reduce air pollution, he said, “Individuals can try not to drive for short trips – walk or cycle instead. Local councils can impose low emission zones, we’ve seen this in Brighton, and London has gone further and introduced a T-charge for the worst polluting vehicles.

“However, councils are worried if they impose restrictions, people would go elsewhere.

“This is why a national strategy is needed. We need walking, cycling, and public transport prioritised and made the most attractive, cheapest, and convenient way to travel.”

Andrew Durling, of Eastbourne Friends of the Earth (FoE), said, “We are providing whatever support we can to Clean Air Eastbourne’s vitally important air quality monitoring project.

“Eastbourne is the fastest growing town in East Sussex, so it has seen a big increase in road traffic over the last few years, and as most of that traffic is diesel vehicles, which are highly polluting, it is not surprising air pollution, especially from particulates, is significantly high.

“Plus we are next to one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and ships burn the dirtiest kind of diesel fuel in huge quantities, emitting massive amounts of sulphur dioxide, which can blow into the town.”

FoE is campaigning to make polluted areas of Eastbourne a Clean Air Zone. This would mean for instance a restriction to the kind of vehicles allowed into the zone, to encourage low emission transport in the area, and asking buses to turn off their engines when stationary.

Andrew added, “There’s some obvious places it would be – ‘Diesel Alley’ as Terminus Road is known, and roads like Victoria Drive and Seaside Road which has huge amounts of traffic and is a pollution hotspot. It would include as many schools as possible.”

The Herald also spoke to Dr Matt Loxham, research fellow in air pollution toxicology at the University of Southampton, on why Eastbourne has such high levels of pollution.

He said, “It’s surprising at first glance the town has pollution of that level, when you consider it isn’t an especially large or industrialised urban area.

“The EU limit for PM2.5 is 25 micrograms per cubic metre averaged over a year – 15 is well below that. The problem is what that represents. There’s no safe lower level, it doesn’t mean there’s no health effects.

“WHO limits recommend 10 micrograms per cubic metre – that’s exceeded in Eastbourne. But it’s false to say below that represents a safe threshold, it’s not true.

“WHO limits aren’t based on a level we know to be safe, but to understand the effects of pollution on health below that level is very hard.

“It’s not correct to say that represents a safe limit. The instruments measuring this are high tech ‘reference’ standard, and the data is reliable – it’s not debatable what’s being measured. Eastbourne’s level of PM2.5 is not a lot different to London’s.

“The levels are almost certainly a mixture of London and continent and maybe shipping activity.

“I don’t want to say there are massively high levels compared to say China or India, but it’s certainly not correct to say these levels are safe.

“PM 2.5 is more toxic because it is small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, and is mainly generated by combustion (for example by diesel engines), which produces substances known to be carcinogenic.

“Unlike the larger PM10, PM2.5 remains in the air considerably longer, and can travel long distances. And so I think it’s unlikely the PM2.5 being measured in Eastbourne necessarily comes from the Eastbourne area.”

Asked about the 61 deaths Public Health England reports are attributed to air pollution every year in Eastbourne, he said, “Most people who die prematurely are already very ill.

“The bigger issue is harm to health over a lifetime. Children are more likely to be born prematurely in polluted areas, with reduced lung growth, and increased risk of asthma.

“Later in life, exposure to pollution is associated with lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke. We are now seeing research which suggests a potential connection with dementia and diabetes, but more work is needed to determine whether there really is a link in these cases.”

Speaking on what should be done to reduce air pollution, he said, “The grander the scale it should be tackled at the better.

“Local authorities can’t do anything about pollution coming in from the outside. It needs to be dealt with from a national and EU level. Reducing limits can only work to an extent, I can say ‘let’s halve limits’ but how are you going to achieve that?

“Improve public transport, get people out of cars. It’s down to public perception and public attitude. It’s a very difficult problem.”

And Robert McGowan, of Bespoke Cycle Group, has taken an interest in the issue.

He said, “The South Downs traps locally produced and in-blown pollutants, perhaps more if there are easterly winds. Eastbourne is a large, car-oriented town – many of which have diesel engines.

“A lack of information doesn’t help – there are only two official monitoring stations: Willingdon Trees and Lullington Heath. Strangely, monitoring of PM10 ceased at the end of 2016 at Willingdon Trees.

“Interestingly, on the day of the pollution incident at Birling Gap there was a spike in ground-level ozone at Fecamp, Normandy, as there was at Lullington Heath. But unlike here, an official pollution alert was triggered in Normandy.

“If the readings were compared with weather and meteorological records it may be possible to find patterns, for example if spikes in air pollution coincide with easterly winds – like air coming from Northern France and Belgium.

“There are also questions about the contribution of shipping – The Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world, with around 400 ships passing through the Dover Strait every day. Amazingly, the 15 biggest ships emit the same pollution as the entire world car fleet.”

• For more information about Clean Air Eastbourne, and to get involved or donate money towards the project, follow it on social media at @EastbourneAir.