Interview: Dr Gary Fuller, King’s College London

Dr Gary Fuller is a senior lecturer in Air Pollution Measurement at King’s College London and also leads the university’s London Air Quality Network, which has been at the cutting edge of UK research into air pollution since the mid-1990s.

AirQualityNews met him at the university to discuss his new book The Invisible Killer, the last time his research surprised him and why we’re all responsible for air pollution.

Your book traces the protracted history of air pollution in the UK. Why has it seemingly taken so long for the government and the media to take the issue seriously?

People were studying air pollution in the 1660s and all the way through Victorian times people were measuring things in the air.

Although many people were hypothesising it, people didn’t make the connection between air pollution and health until the Great Smog of 1952.

It’s picking up now because of the sheer weight of evidence which builds by the day. It’s snowballing and bringing it to prominence.

There’s loads of emerging evidence to show that air pollution is damaging us over our life course. From before you’re born, through your development as a child, and then through adulthood.

Many of the older people in my family, their last few years are characterised by a struggle for breath. If we reach old age with lungs that have been affected by childhood exposure then we could be really storing up a health legacy for generations.

We had a journalism and social science student here at King’s College who was studying air pollution in the media. She cited an event that led to a huge explosion in media reports.

In 2014 when news stories came out that Oxford Street was the most polluted street in the UK, and the Mayor (Boris Johnson) disputed that story.

So for the first time, air pollution was presented as a conflict — which is a good media narrative — between science and government.

What is the biggest misconception around air pollution?

If you asked a regular person about air pollution, in no time at all they would point to the traffic on the street. I think the biggest misconception about air pollution is that it’s framed entirely in one source — transport. But if you went back to the 1950s or 60s and talked to my parents when they lived in London it would have been framed in terms of home fires and factories.

Throughout history, air pollution policy and action have suffered from a narrow focus.

Woodburning is a very large source of air pollution but it’s very difficult to persuade people this is the case because it doesn’t fit with their preconception.

The other main one is people also feel they are protected from air pollution by being in their car. They’re not. From all the commuter exposure studies we do the people that drive have the highest exposure.

You’ve studied air pollution for decades. When was the last time you found something that surprised you?

It was the most recent Easter Sunday, going into the Monday Bank Holiday. Across the Dutch and German-speaking world, they light bonfires over Easter and these can be fires in people’s gardens or massive public fires.

A lot of people stay up all night and it’s part of the Easter tradition there but the smoke is colossal. This Easter, the smoke from their fires reached the UK. When I was on duty on Monday morning I opened up the data and it was just red. It’s the first year we’ve found it and it was in such abundance. It spread over parts of East and South London. I’ve never seen that before.

A lot of people in the Netherlands and Germany are now seriously questioning whether they should carry on this tradition. We need to be tackling air pollution, be it in the Netherlands or in the UK and we have to take responsibility for the air pollution we create as individuals. That narrative is quite a clear one.

How can countries better work together to tackle air pollution?

We’re less bad at the blame game than we used to be. If you look at the acid rain times, the level of denial of the problem and responsibility, albeit in the Cold War context, was shameful.

It’s comparable to the climate change denial we have today.

What came out of that is the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, which covers Europe, but there needs to be more.

The air we have in London today could be in Paris yesterday and Amsterdam the next day. This transboundary aspect is really important, we’re never going to solve this problem until we tackle that.

Whose responsibility is air pollution?

The polluting factory used to be seen as a sign of work and prosperity, they are those things, but they impose a burden on the rest of society.

It’s more problematic when you say the polluter should pay and that involves you in your old diesel car. There it becomes more difficult.

A couple wrote to me from Bromley who moved out of their home because they couldn’t cope with the stairs so moved into social housing. The husband had COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and the wife was in better health and cared for him.

They were allocated social housing on a road junction. Every time they opened up the windows the air pollution would come in and exacerbate his COPD. They were trapped in this environment.

Is it right that they suffer just because someone else has an older diesel car they don’t want to give up?

In your book, you say the car was the symbol of the 20th century — what do you hope will be the symbol of the 21st century?

The bicycle!

If you think of all the things you could do to tackle air pollution, the one where we could get the most societal benefit would be over transport.

It might not be the largest source in many places, but if we can tackle the way people take short journeys by car, you can tackle air pollution, climate change emissions and urban noise, which plagues so many people. Best of all we can tackle chronic diseases caused by inactivity.

Gary Fuller’s book The Invisible Killer is available to buy here.