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'You can almost taste it': Air pollution hotspots in Tower Hamlets revealed

PUBLISHED: 12:00 03 December 2019 | UPDATED: 15:19 03 December 2019

Dozens of locations in Tower Hamlets breached air quality safe limits in 2018. Picture: Hannah Somerville

Dozens of locations in Tower Hamlets breached air quality safe limits in 2018. Picture: Hannah Somerville

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Sixty locations in Tower Hamlets consistently breached safe levels of air pollution last year - including two right next to a hospital.

Whitechapel High Street, one of the borough's consistent pollution hotspots. Picture: Hannah SomervilleWhitechapel High Street, one of the borough's consistent pollution hotspots. Picture: Hannah Somerville

In 2018 Tower Hamlets Council logged 18 sites with an annual mean level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2 level) above 40 micrograms per cubic metre in 2018.

Modelling by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggests there could be another 41 such "hotspots" in the borough.

More than 40 per cent of the population of Tower Hamlets lives in areas with unacceptable air quality and campaigners have warned the situation could get worse.

On Friday night, green campaigners from across the borough joined forces in Whitechapel to protest inaction on climate change and pollution in London.

Lola Brichet, of Tower Hamlets Extinction Rebellion, said: "This borough is one of the most polluted in London and some of the poorest areas, Poplar for example, are among the hardest-hit in terms of air pollution."

A recent study by King's College that found children in polluted parts of the capital - including in Tower Hamlets - were growing up with reduced lung capacity due to NO2 exposure.

Ms Brichet added: "I'm pregnant and my child is going to have reduced lung capacity. It's horrible. We're hoping for a real system change. but in the meantime, there are other things we can do."

Every year the local authority compiles a report on NO2 levels at dozens of locations it monitors, based on real-world sampling.

Local Extinction Rebellion activist Arthur Perez, right, with other demonstrators in Whitechapel on Friday. Picture: Hannah SomervilleLocal Extinction Rebellion activist Arthur Perez, right, with other demonstrators in Whitechapel on Friday. Picture: Hannah Somerville

Among the 18 locations it flagged as being in breach of the 40ug/m3 "objective" limit were Poplar High Street, Whitechapel Market and Mile End Road and Harford Street, the latter two a stone's throw away from Mile End Hospital.

A Barts Health NHS Trust spokesman said the trust was installing extra air quality monitors near its sites and working with local GPs to support children with asthma.

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They said: "We are aware of the high levels of air pollution on roads neighbouring our hospitals, and are concerned about the impact on our patients, visitors and staff."

Lola Brichet raises awareness of air pollution at Friday's demonstration. Picture: Hannah SomervilleLola Brichet raises awareness of air pollution at Friday's demonstration. Picture: Hannah Somerville

One of the worst-afflicted zones was near the Limehouse Link tunnel, where the average reading over 2018 56ug/m3.

Dennis Murphy, 59, who works locally for charity Veterans Aid, said: "It doesn't surprise me at all. This time of the year it's not as noticeable but in the summer you can almost taste it."

Unlike the council, Defra relies on modelling to project levels of NO2 across the UK. An investigation by SourceMaterial found discrepancies between Defra's estimates and local authorities' on-the-ground readings, leading to more than 1,000 "hidden" hotspots across the UK.

Jenny Bates, air pollution campaigner for Friends of the Earth, which collated the councils' data, said: "While some progress on air pollution has been made in the capital, much more needs to be done to protect the health of Londoners.

Barts Health NHS trust has said it is Barts Health NHS trust has said it is "concerned" about air quality near Mile End Hospital. Picture: Mike Brooke

"The whole of London currently exceeds the World Health Organisation's standard for the most deadly fine particle pollution. Cleaning up the vehicles on our roads won't be enough to deal with this.

"The Mayor must invest more in pedestrian-friendly areas, safe cycling and better public transport - and reverse his decision to go ahead with a new 4-lane road tunnel in East London, which will foist even more pollution on some local communities."

The concerns were echoed by activists in Whitechapel on Friday ahead of a large-scale protest at the City headquarters of asset manager Blackrock over deforestation.

Tower Hamlets Council is working to a 2017-2022 "action plan" aiming to promote cleaner transport, making its own vehicle fleet more sustainable and policing major infrastructure projects that could impact on air quality.

An area near the Limehouse Link was one of the most polluted spots recorded by the council. Picture: Hannah SomervilleAn area near the Limehouse Link was one of the most polluted spots recorded by the council. Picture: Hannah Somerville

At an event in Whitechapel in July, Rachel Blake, cabinet member for air quality and alleviating poverty, warned that time was running out to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by next year.

She added: ""We're on track to meet our commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, while working towards being a 'carbon free' authority by 2025. But we know there's a lot more to do."

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