‘I find it hard to breathe’: The problem of air pollution in Norwich lingers on
PUBLISHED: 08:03 16 November 2016 | UPDATED: 12:13 16 November 2016
People in Norwich are breathing in air with illegally high levels of pollution, 13 years after a bid to improve air quality in the city.
Air pollution has been labelled the “invisible killer” by the EU and world health organisations.
And pollutant nitrogen dioxide, which is emitted from vehicles’ engines, can cause breathing difficulties, particularly for asthmatics, by inflaming the lining of lungs.
Green Party councillors are now urging for more be done to clean up Norwich’s air after the High Court ruled at the start of November that the government plans to bring down pollutant levels were illegal.
Norfolk Green Party councillor Andrew Boswell said: “We are seeing complacency and inaction at every level on this public health emergency.
“Norwich City Council and Norfolk County Council have both claimed they are doing enough, despite the fact that Norwich has breached legal pollution limits for the last ten years.
“However, the government must not dump the issue on cash-strapped local authorities as they did last year.”
To tackle the problem, an “air quality management area” was first put in place in part of Norwich city centre in 2003, meaning the city council had to develop a comprehensive plan to meet air quality standards.
Since 2012, that area includes the whole of the city inside the inner ring road. More than a decade after initial concerns about air pollution in Norwich, the problem lingers on.
The annual average level of nitrogen dioxide is not meant to go over 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air (μg/m3). But city centre nitrogen dioxide levels have been above that limit every year from 2010 to 2014 - the last year annual data is available for - according to city council figures.
And the latest readings from a site in Lakenham from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) show nitrogen dioxide levels were particularly high in January, February and March this year, reaching a high of 87 μg/m3.
In 2014, the average nitrogen dioxide level in the city centre was 65pc above the target at 66μg/m3.
The pollutant was particularly high in Castle Meadow and St Stephens. The legal limit was also exceeded on King Street, St Augustines Street, Cattle Market Street and Riverside Road.
Levels of nitrogen dioxide can be heavily influenced by the weather, said Professor Claire Reeves from the University of East Anglia.
In winter, when air is stagnant and there is less sunshine, nitrogen dioxide sticks around for longer, leading to higher concentrations.
Emissions, particularly from diesel engines, remain the biggest root cause of the pollutant, with buses and taxis being the main contributor, according to a city council report.
Professor Reeves said pollutants could be brought down to target levels by banning cars from more areas and encouraging vehicles, including buses, to use emission reduction technologies.
The council hopes by redesigning traffic flow within the inner ring road to divert vehicles away from the city centre, they will be able to get pollutant levels down.
Cllr Bert Bremner, the council’s cabinet member for the environment, said: “We take our air quality responsibilities very seriously and, through extensive monitoring, have a good understanding of the picture in the city centre.
“Numerous measures have been taken to improve air quality in key areas, working with our transport colleagues within city and county council; against a backdrop of cuts to local government resources.
“Latest figures show that these measures are working, and we will continue to collaborate with our partners to make further improvements.”
Speaking about the recent High Court ruling, won by environmental lawyers ClientEarth against the government on November 2, Professor Reeves said: “The government’s plans to improve air quality focussed on introducing clean air zones in only six cities and yet there are other places, including Norwich, which exceed air quality limits, so the government now needs to put in more effective regulations.”
Public Health England estimates air pollution contributed to 450 deaths in Norfolk and 366 in Suffolk in 2010.
‘I find it hard to breathe’
Claire Scarrott, 49 from Watton, explains how air pollution affects her on her daily commute into Norwich.
“I have noticed, while walking to work on Newmarket Road that the highest levels of air pollution are when the weather is very warm or on damp foggy days.
“In both situations there is no wind to clear the pollution away.
“I find it hard to breathe, the air seems to lack oxygen and my walking ability becomes slightly laboured. As I am walking, traffic is queuing beside me, all the way to St Stephens roundabout. It is the weight of cars and delivery lorries, that create the fumes.
“School term time affects the weight of traffic on Newmarket Road. There are several schools in that area and many of the children are delivered to school by their parents in the family car. When the schools are shut for holidays, the weight of traffic is noticeably reduced.
“During the summer holiday weeks it is quite a pleasant and relatively peaceful walk into the city. I appreciate that there is a need for traffic to have access the city. I am a driver myself and not anti-car, but I have experienced the effects of traffic pollution.
“The children in the schools in the area are breathing the same polluted air. I don’t know if charging a tariff for private vehicles using the Newmarket Road might be a possible answer?”
‘Since moving here my chest has felt tighter’
We asked readers on our Facebook page whether air pollution in the city was an issue for them.
•Laura Jane Summerfield:
“This really does ring true for me. I live near Anglia Square and since moving here my chest has felt tighter than it ever has before.”
•Paul Cutting: “(1) Sort out the roadworks and stop closing roads; (2) Stop the ridiculous queuing going into Castle Mall on Saturday which causes the tailbacks down Rose Lane and on to Prince of Wales; (3) Stop the queuing on Chapelfield pass the sign which says no queuing.”
•Mick Betts: “It’s the invisible particulates that buses and taxis push out that do the damage. Only a universal change to LPG gas is the long term answer.
“Councils make it worse with road humps, lousy traffic light timing, and squeezing the available road space with nonsensical bus and cycle lanes.”
•Rebecca Grimbly: “First thing we noticed when we moved up here at the back end of 2013 was how awful the phasing of the traffic lights is.
“If they stayed green longer you’d clear a lot more traffic because there is less stop, start which all adds to slowing things down.
“More parking so people aren’t sat queuing with the engine running would also help.”
•John Gills: “If you ban buses and taxis, Norwich will end up a ghost town overnight. No one will be able to drink alcohol, stay late then get home.
“Also what about people who can’t drive and tourists? If anything, cars should be banned because that’s what’s causing the traffic jams.”
•Michael Woods: “Ban all buses and allow cars but with limited parking, then sort out the local train services so it’s metro style like in Paris.”
•Sally Cushing: “There are no cars actually in Norwich city centre, only buses and taxis, Norwich has moved all the traffic on to just a few roads so the traffic crawls and jams up all the time.”
•Patricia Snowsill: “Bring back the trams.”
What’s being done?
Council efforts to cut down on air pollution have centered around making buses more energy efficient and taking traffic away from the city centre. As part of the Department for Transport’s Clean Bus Technology Fund, Norfolk County Council secured £416,000 worth of funding earlier this year.
By the end of 2016, 24 of the most polluting buses in the city should have emission-reducing equipment.
“This initiative will lead to a reduction in nitrogen emissions of around 100 tonnes, and a reduction in carbon of around 200 tonnes over the next five years,” said Jeremy Wiggin from the council.
Norwich City Council is also pedestrianising more of the centre to divert traffic away from the area inside the inner ring road, which has been an “air quality management area” since 2012.
Signs have also gone up encouraging drivers to turn off engines when stationary.
Rural air pollution
Nitrogen dioxide is more of a problem in cities where it is emitted by vehicles, but another pollutant - ozone - can also cause breathing problems. It is more prevalent in summer than in winter and can affect rural areas more than cities.
According to King’s College London, rural areas fare the worst for ozone levels, because other pollutants in more urban areas tend to “mop up” ground level ozone.
Ground level ozone forms the main part of “photochemical smog” – a phenomenon that tends to arise during summer months.
Defra monitors ozone levels at two sites in Norfolk - a station in Lakenham in Norwich and Weybourne in north Norfolk.
The Norwich site has breached ozone guideline levels six days this year, with readings reaching a high of 130 μg/m3 against a target of 100 μg/m3.
The Weybourne site has recorded average readings of 100μg/m3 or higher 10 times this year.
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