Friday, 19 October 2018

Work with nature to cure pollution problem

THERE hardly seems to be a week go by these days when a protest of some kind.

THERE hardly seems to be a week go by these days when a protest of some description does not hit the news (those that actually get reported, of course).

Uproar and stance therefore get much more difficult to penetrate through the fog of daily human existence with anything that can be seen by everyone as a shaft of clear, enlightening sunlight.

Not so for the recent protests about urban air pollution in London when our own dear Admiral Nelson sported a new (albeit temporary) look in the form of a giant breathing mask courtesy of some determined and intrepid climbers from Greenpeace.

While terminally eye-rolling cynics might dismiss this as some form of juvenile publicity stunt, serving no more purpose other than to divert the emergency services and the police from more worthy duties, it is in fact more than this, much more.

Urban air pollution now is a very serious global and local problem — and one that (unlike many) cannot be easily curtailed by building better defences or implementing improved security measures.

Urban air pollution has no respect for postcode property values, social status, wealth, age, beauty or geographical relief.

It is not something people can discuss over dinner as “someone really ought to fix this”. It is incumbent on us all to fix it.

Well, if that hasn&rsquot made you choke, it&rsquos quite likely that diesel emission particulates might well do so instead.

Meanwhile, let&rsquos look at some facts.

• A recent report by the United Nations indicated that urban air pollution levels rose by eight per cent between 2008 and 2013.

• According to the World Health Organisation, seven million people a year die from air pollution and more than half of those from indoor air pollution.

• More than 80 percent of people who live in urban areas breathe air with pollution levels exceeding WHO limits.

• Research carried out on behalf of the Department for Energy and Climate Change estimates that diesel-related health problems cost the NHS 10 times as much as comparable problems caused by petrol fumes.

• The World Health Organisation concludes that diesel exhaust is comparable to secondary cigarette smoking for inducing cancer.

• Extensive UK scientific testing in 2011 demonstrated that while petrol emissions had improved by 96 per cent, emissions of nitrous oxide from diesel cars and light goods vehicles had not decreased for 15 to 20 years. Sales of diesel over petrol vehicles reached a tipping point in 2011. Diesel emissions contain particles of benzene, nickel, formaldehyde and even arsenic.

• Fifteen years ago, the particles ingested in our lungs were less than one fifth of the width of a human hair. As the particles shrink in size they are able to penetrate even further into our tissue, increasing the risk of strokes, respiratory conditions and cancers.

• Diesel particulate filtration technology is still relatively unpredictable with some vehicles developing issues with filter clogging. There is also a non-standardised approach still in existence to resolve the issue of very high temperatures needed to burn off excessive particle pollution when the engine is running at all speeds.

Making front page news in the Henley Standard three weeks ago was the sad plight of Mike Stanton, an active, socially participative town resident but also an asthma sufferer.

He and his wife are regrettably selling up and moving from the town as his inhaler has “little or no effect” on their walks down Greys Road into the town centre — a journey he described from an air-quality perspective as “like breathing through sand”.

Henley may be beautiful but it does have urban air pollution problems. No amount of pretty architecture or outstanding natural fringe landscape will counter a corridor of regular diesel emissions arising from very high levels of through-traffic.

At a time when it is so vital to concentrate on sustainable and renewable energy and practices, as a country we seem to be making retrograde steps — from tax breaks for diesel cars to shale gas extraction (fracking) seemingly now going full steam ahead in our national parks.

One cannot help but think we are out of step in both our thinking and actions compared with other civilised and developed countries, many of which are taking the opposite approach.

We can do much better than the short-term, “play it safe” thinking and sporadic, unco-ordinated action.

There are amazing environmental projects that I have witnessed in London but, oh, the trauma of realising them.

With London now having the dirtiest air of any European city — and breaching its quota of “bad air hours” in the first eight days of this year — you really have to marvel at the inertia and folly of our governance.

My business is environmental and it has been a wonderful journey of discovery as well as rekindling and strengthening a lifelong love of plants.

Plants and nature hold the key to so many of our problems. Cheap and plentiful ivy, which is in leaf all year round, ingests a great deal of particulate pollution, which is why you will see it on hoardings around hospital construction sites and on the railings of some school playgrounds.

Moving indoors, systems are now available to harness the roots and soil around plants to act as a highly efficient and natural air filter — and the results are as stunning as they are beautiful.

Plants indoors may be tuned in quantity and type to tackle combinations of benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, ozone and many other substances.

Research undertaken by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has proved that plants have both incredible physical and emotional benefits to people in all manner of situations.

Much care goes into planning an indoor plant wall but the results are evident instantaneously.

Use of these natural environments are even lowering staff attrition rates as well as fighting pollution.

We need to work with nature now as there have never been easier and more convenient ways to integrate it into all aspects of our lives.

Come on, Admiral Nelson would expect nothing less.

• Richard Francis, who lives near Henley, runs environmental business Sensescape, which harnesses natural high density, low footprint vertical plant walls together with other sensory elements to tune a space into an environment. He has collaborated with universities engaged in cutting-edge environmental practices and delivered projects indoors and outdoors for both domestic and commercial applications. He blogs, writes and (wherever it is feasible) cycles. For more information, visit

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