Wednesday 20 October 2010

Blocking Highs

As the political debate reaches new “lows” perhaps we should think of some “highs”.

Before the Clean Air Acts of 1955 and later, given the air pollution then in urban areas the weather conditions could have a critical effect on health. A long “blocking high” which meant light or little wind, fog and often persistent low cloud would give air that was literally filthy in the age of coal.

Everything was covered in soot and other particles. Keeping clean was difficult, the smell was pervasive and the fatigue induced debilitating to the many people who had lung or other problems. As the days wore on it simply became worse and worse.

It was in December 1952 that for a few days “The Great Smog” reduced Central London to a standstill when the air was thick with filth. I was there a couple of weeks afterwards and it still stank and many people were almost shell shocked.

The authorities moved quickly to fiddle the figures, reducing the period when deaths could be attributed to the illness contracted at that time. Had it been left as before then the figures of deaths given would have been a great deal higher.

What is not known is how many people were seriously damaged but survived for some years or how many people had their lives shortened in later life by the long term effects.

It is my view that we are coming closer to something like this with the air pollution now evident. Visiting London nowadays means encountering air quality that is often quite bad. The problem is that the measures for this are related to a limited number of particles, notably traffic and industrial.

Traffic is certainly a major factor, but what is being missed is the gathering amount of other substances from persons and the use of many devices in most buildings outputting forms of gas and particles.

The many air conditioning systems pump out heat and bad air. Also the huge increase in the number of food outlets add to the problem, a street full of them can really test the sense of smell, brain and body.

Yet much of this pollution is more dangerous nowadays because it cannot be washed out. The chemical content of personal products and air fresheners is made to be far longer lasting and designed to carry distances. It is claimed to withstand both dry cleaning and frequent washing. Worse still it adheres and transfers easily from one surface to another.

In global terms it does not take much of a change in weather patterns to move systems about from year to year or over periods of several years. In the South East corner of England, possibly with many of the most polluted urban areas we have had a number of blocking highs this summer.

This may have delighted the manic heat seeking weather forecasters but it has been bad news for those who prefer the clean fresh wind and wet air from the lows.

I wonder if we are due for a winter with a number of periods of blocking highs? It is a few years since the last one and longer still to a worse. If so what will be their consequences? Not only will there be bad air pollution but more heat and other output will worsen the problems in urban areas.

There is a potential health disaster in the making, and Boris Bikes are not the answer.

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