Air pollution in the UK has been declared a 'public health emergency' and Dr Xand van Tulleken is seeing what can be done about it.
Browse content similar to Fighting for Air. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
We know that the air is toxic,
so we have to try and do something.
I'm now looking at you as a man who is basically pumping poison gas
into these people's homes.
Research shows that your fear is unwarranted.
You cannot just go bang into something.
Don't talk on behalf of me when you're talking about businesses.
Have you done stuff like this before?
Not in this way, not in such a dynamic experiment in a city.
We've got some data coming in,
but it's hard to say exactly what's happened yet.
THEY COUGH AND SPLUTTER
Do you think it's going to work?
Are you optimistic?
# Well, he feels like an elephant
# Shaking his big grey trunk for the hell of it... #
It's everywhere, it affects all of us
and you have to go to extreme lengths if you want to avoid it.
Right now, I'm totally protected from all the fumes from these cars
because this mask contains filters that are
designed for chemical warfare.
This is military-grade technology.
So at the moment, I'm breathing the cleanest air possible.
This air contains high levels of harmful pollution from industry
and construction, but here, mostly from vehicles.
To test just how dangerous the air we breathe is,
I'm first having to detox - free my body of pollution.
For the past 12 years, Dr Mark Miller has been
investigating exactly how traffic pollution affects us.
I'm his latest lab rat.
You should be breathing nice, clean air at the moment.
So we'll do all these tests, and then, after that,
we'll take the suit off, we'll repeat all the tests again
and, hopefully, we might see that air pollution actually affects
some of the things we've been looking at.
Mark will analyse my blood,
record my heart rate and even test how well my brain is working.
Having done the tests pollution-free,
it's time to expose myself...
..and get a lungful of unfiltered city air.
After three hours, I rerun the same set of tests.
So, can you talk me through the results?
So, what we did see was consistently higher blood pressure
once you've had your period of air pollution exposure.
Your blood was a little bit more likely to clot,
so it was, like, a little bit thicker.
You have a slightly higher blood pressure,
your arteries are a little bit more constricted,
a little bit more tense.
That's the sort of thing you would see, perhaps, if you were ageing,
when you get a little bit older.
If you were someone with heart disease,
that does actually increase your risk of having a heart attack.
I guess that, to me, is very shocking.
They're very small changes, but my arteries have got a bit stiffer,
my blood pressure has gone up and my blood has got stickier.
I would be very worried about those changes.
And what about the cognition test?
Is my thinking worse after the pollution than it was before?
There were signs that thinking was slower,
a little bit more dampened down.
Maybe not quite so sharp as you would have been
before you'd had the air pollution exposure.
Although this was a one-off, my results demonstrate the problem.
Given that the whole urban population is exposed long-term,
the consequences are terrifying.
In the UK alone,
air pollution kills 40,000 people prematurely every year.
It affects our brains, our blood,
our arteries and, of course, our lungs.
Scientists and MPs agree it is a public health emergency.
What we do about it is causing debate.
I'm on my way to a suburb of Birmingham called Kings Heath.
Like lots of built-up areas in the UK,
the air quality around here is pretty atrocious.
Lots of people have been trying to improve our air quality -
governments, local councils, even businesses -
but so far, it's a problem that isn't going away.
So I want to see if one community can make a difference.
I want to see if people power can give us the clean air we need.
We're here because Kings Heath is a small suburb
with a big traffic problem.
Despite a series of motorways and ring roads,
many drivers use Kings Heath High Street
as a rat run into the city centre.
Sat-navs have only made that worse.
We've tested the air here and, like many high streets,
it's on the cusp of the legal limit.
Right now, I am breathing in a cocktail of nasty substances.
There's loads of bad things in the air here.
But two of the big ones are the nitrogen oxides,
those are called NOx, and particulate matter, or PMs.
Those are coming out of the exhaust of the cars, the buses,
the lorries, and they're all bad for you.
You can't see them, you can smell them,
but every breath I'm taking is doing me harm.
This is the perfect place to try and make a change.
We're taking a gamble.
We've booked the local church hall to have a meeting about air quality.
But do people here care?
We're making a film about air pollution in the region,
we're trying to get people to come to a meeting at six o'clock.
-Do you live locally?
-No, we don't.
You don't care? All right. Can you come at six o'clock?
-No, we can't.
-You can't make it at six?
-No, we have other meetings.
-We have meetings.
We're having a meeting about air pollution on the high street.
-Oh, no, thank you, I'm fine.
-I've got my inhaler out.
You've got your inhaler! Can I give you a flyer, at least?
Will you look at the flyer? You are really wheezing.
-Oh, it's not due to pollution.
-Are you sure?
So, some interest in my flyers,
but the weather has taken a turn for the worse and I am slightly nervous
no-one's going to show up.
But, by six o'clock, the room is filling up and it looks as if
it might be a full house.
Thank you very, very much for coming.
Air pollution is increasingly in the news at the moment and
I think it's easy to think that air pollution is either something
that affects people in Shanghai or people who live next to
a factory or a power station and not that it affects us.
But actually, it is a local problem here
and in most urban centres.
Children's lungs get stunted.
These chemicals will thicken your blood, inflame your arteries,
make your heart more likely to beat irregularly,
make you more likely to have a stroke or a heart attack,
make you more likely to develop asthma or,
if you already have asthma, have an asthma attack,
and they will shorten your life.
I'm sorry, I know we've got young people in the audience,
but this is the world you're living in. And the good news is,
there's lots of things we can do about it.
Yeah, I think we've become more aware of it in recent years
when we found out that Kings Heath High Street was the third or fourth
worst street for air pollution in the city.
That was a big shock.
I don't find that Kings Heath High Street is a place
that I want to be.
I avoid driving down it, walking down it.
I don't find it a nice place to be.
I think one of the problems is we don't know the scope of the problem.
We know general statistics, we know so many millions of people die,
what we don't know is exactly what's happening on the high street.
We can't allow more cars to block up our roads.
Communities don't work that well
when you've got streets that have busy traffic.
You had your hand up while that was being said.
We are what we are in Kings Heath.
It's a great place to live.
And if you start messing about with Kings Heath, businesses will close.
I'm 75, I've worked on the high street all my life,
fit as a fiddle. But...
..think carefully what they do in Kings Heath.
As far as I understand what you're saying, if you restrict cars,
businesses will lose customers, businesses will close,
and you can destroy a neighbourhood.
You can destroy a neighbourhood, yes.
As a business owner, I'm excited by the opportunity that
changes that can impact air quality and the quality of life
of my customers in this area, really excites me.
And I'm not scared of that change, scared of trying other things.
What I'd really like to do is build towards an experiment where,
on one big day,
we can try to make a really noticeable difference
in the air quality on the high street.
If we can do that, then we can show Birmingham,
we can show the whole of the UK and maybe even the whole of the world,
that this is possible to do.
That's the bit where you're all meant to stand up and cheer and cry
and throw your... Anyway. LAUGHTER
Is everyone, then, willing to join us and try to achieve
a day where we can drive the air pollution down
and prove that it is possible in a sustainable way?
Personally, I feel...
..I don't know, excited and apprehensive.
Does anyone else feel that way? LAUGHTER
OK. Thank you very, very much indeed.
It's gone better than I'd hoped and, within days,
a number of residents have come forward, keen to see
what can be done about their high street.
Sara Aboutorabi is an urban designer who lives in Kings Heath.
To tackle the air pollution problem, we need to change people's habits.
And I'm guilty of that, I hop in the car everywhere.
Cars are just absolutely jammed on the high street.
It's made me conscious to use the car less and walk more.
Peter Edwards is Kings Heath born and bred.
He works for Birmingham University.
We will always have naysayers who say, you can't see it,
or in the '60s there was smog and it was dirty and you could see it.
Well, I know from reading that it's scientifically proven
that it is there and it is killing people.
Stan Hems is the local butcher.
He's one of those who thinks pollution is far less of a problem
than it was in the past.
The pollution has got a lot better.
We'd have to clean this counter a four or five times a day
because of the fumes and the pollution of the high street.
Now, look, no-one has cleaned it yet.
My hands are clean.
Mohammed Farid runs the local taxi service,
Kate Goodall is a business manager,
and Cat Watton is an architect who lives and works here.
It is fair to say that she's not a fan of cars.
The high street is a very hostile place
both for pedestrians, for cyclists,
but also lots of other people.
So, yeah, in my own utopia,
I would be looking to completely block private cars.
And the team is meeting in a cafe
run by local resident James Connolly.
They're not short of ideas or opinions,
but they do agree that the high street can be improved,
and I found a great person to help them out.
-Hey, everybody. ALL:
-I have brought Roland with me.
Roland Leigh is a professor of air quality from
the University of Leicester.
This street, this area, is very typical of somewhere
where you actually have control of a lot of what is produced
and a lot of the impacts on health will be because of local traffic.
So we definitely have a situation here that's worth some action
and worth some management in terms of human exposure.
What would you like to do about it?
Reduce the buses in the daytime, the middle of the day.
You've got three buses come together,
one is full and the other three,
there's two people and three people on them.
There are far too many buses at daytime anyway,
especially when the kids are coming out of school and all that.
There is so much traffic there.
Some of the residents think that parking on the busy high street
causes a lot of the congestion and therefore the pollution.
Actually, we should be making it more difficult to park,
-unfortunately, and I think actually having...
Because parking is what we want to...
We're talking about an issue where we've got pollution from
individual private cars.
-This is potentially an effective thing?
Anything that keeps traffic flowing in general,
anything that doesn't stop,
particularly the large diesel engines.
The parking isn't for hours.
Some people are there for two minutes, three minutes.
They go in the Post Office,
buy some stamps and a card and they're back out in the car.
So that parking space is changed over...
It's stopping the traffic and therefore
-creating more air pollution...
Traffic lights stop the traffic.
So, shouldn't pedestrians cross the road?
We should just let cars go free rein?
A lot of people have invested a lot of money in Kings Heath.
I'm one of them.
Look, I want cleaner air for myself. Honestly, I do,
but you have got to do everything in moderation.
You cannot just go bang into something.
I think for the day of action, removing those spaces,
it's one day, it's an experiment.
If it's a total disaster, we'll know,
you'll be proved right,
but it will be very interesting to see the net effect.
I actually think we've got a real great opportunity to make a bit of
a sea change in people's habits.
I guess my professional experience is that I tell people
all the time to do things that will be good for them, like,
do more exercise, lose some weight, eat your greens, stop smoking,
and they always ignore me completely.
I don't want to say pessimistic, but this is terrifying to me,
all the things you want to do. THEY LAUGH
But I am totally blown away by the ambition in the room from everyone,
so that is very exciting.
The group decides on a date for their big experiment,
just four weeks away.
To see if they make any impact,
Roland is going to measure the pollution around Kings Heath
before and during the experiment.
I feel like almost what we've got to do is step out into the traffic
and just go, "No, no, sorry, you've all got to go home,"
and that's going to be very hard to do.
OK, do you think they can succeed or not?
I would be optimistic and say, yes, they can.
-I am keen to see.
It will be a fantastic experiment to find out whether they will.
The power of community organising, right?
That's what we are going to see.
Have you done stuff like this before?
Not in this way. Not in such a dynamic experiment in a city.
And has this been done before?
Not to this extent.
So there have been individual traffic measures
where people have changed the traffic flow
and looked at the impact, but not when you start to think
about all the different ways a community can choose to act.
No pressure, then.
The trouble with pollution from most modern vehicles
is that it is usually invisible,
but you can see it if you know how to look.
This is a special thermal camera
with filters that highlight carbon dioxide.
Other toxic gases in the exhaust fumes behave in a similar way.
And the results are shocking.
Massive plumes from buses, cars, and, most worrying of all,
the diesel trucks and lorries.
And it's when they pull away that the worst pollution comes out.
Diesel engines are the monster polluters of our roads.
It's diesels rather than petrol engines that pump out
the NOx and particulate matter that damage our health.
From 2001 until November last year,
the UK Government was offering tax breaks on diesel vehicles
in order to combat global warming.
That's because they emit less carbon dioxide than petrol vehicles.
And it worked a treat.
The numbers exploded and there are now over 11 million diesel vehicles.
That's 40% of everything on the road.
Cafe owner James wants to get people out of their cars altogether,
but he's worried that if we talk about pollution too much,
it will scare people away from
walking and cycling in the urban air.
I think people feel that they are more protected in their cars
from pollution on the outside.
It doesn't feel like it gets in the car and you've got a nice,
safe bubble that you're sitting in.
And actually, when you're at the side of the road,
people can feel, smell, taste the pollution on the high streets.
I want to challenge James' ideas about cars.
EU regulations should already be
making each new generation of diesels cleaner,
but can the way you drive make a real difference to how much
pollution comes out the back end?
To find out, I'm getting James to
take me for a spin around Kings Heath.
So, James, in this car,
I have a machine that is the absolute cutting edge of
-emissions measurement technology.
Here, have a look. I mean, it is pretty cool.
Whoa! That looks pretty fantastic.
-That is amazing, right?
-It is, yeah.
So, the really clever thing about this is that it can give you
the NOx output of the car in real-time.
I'm going to give that feedback to you while we drive around
and we're going to see if we can do something about it.
-All right? So you are behind the wheel.
So it is very dramatic...
-..the differences that I can see in your driving.
Don't change anything, just drive completely normally.
Do what you're normally doing, but I will just tell you,
every time you pull away, every time you accelerate,
you are going from NOx production ticking along at about 150 up to...
Well, the last time you pulled away from the lights,
it was more than 1,500.
So you've gone up ten times.
-And it wasn't an aggressive acceleration.
It was normal.
You are being a completely normal driver.
But even that, where you were accelerating quite gently there,
that was up to 700.
Now, this road with speed bumps is interesting.
Basically, every speed bump is a little belch of NOx.
-You haven't had...
I mean, what's very clear from this graph is you have not had
a single second of steady driving
-where you're just cruising along at the same speed.
-You're always accelerating or decelerating.
There we go, Johnstans Butchers.
There you go. Big, huge spike for Stan,
and it wasn't you doing that deliberately.
No, not at all!
I mean, it's awful because I know it's not your fault,
but I'm now looking at you as a man who is basically pumping poison gas
into these people's homes.
That's not a nice person to be.
I don't want to be that guy.
-You are that guy. I can prove it here, as well.
So if you drive very steadily along here, just keep your speed.
Careful now. Just go... You're now ticking along.
Just gently, gently, gently.
You coasted all the way down here,
you haven't had a single spike on that bit of high street and you're
behind the car in front, just the way you would have been.
So, what we're also saying, then,
is it's not just about the type of vehicle you're in,
-it's about the driving style which is really, really important.
-So that was better.
But it was really hard to try and balance that out.
I mean, you almost want it to give you a little electric shock
every time you accelerated hard.
I'm not sure car manufacturers would go in for that!
When James drove more smoothly, he dumped about 50% less NOx.
If everyone did this,
it would go a long way to solving the pollution problem,
but I've got something even more surprising to show him
and it's about where you are most exposed to fumes.
OK, so, look, this is the level of NOx inside the car
and this is the level of NOx on the street.
That's NOx, so that's the toxic stuff,
and you are very much more exposed to one of the more toxic pollutants
than I am in your car.
So what...? I mean, that, for me, is really surprising.
So James now has ammunition for persuading people
to get out of their cars.
With just a fortnight to go until the big day,
we need some data on the number of polluters on the high street.
Local resident Tom Tierney has organised a survey
to see what types of vehicles and how many
are travelling on the high street
in two hours on a normal weekday afternoon...
..and our scientists are putting up state-of-the-art pollution monitors
that will measure the levels of NOx and PMs
leading up to the big experiment.
Some of the more ambitious members of the group
want to suspend the parking bays along the high street.
They think the bays should go
because they make the traffic stop and start
as people try to park, dumping more pollution into the high street -
but Stan believes they help the businesses thrive.
The parking bays, if you suspend them off the high streets,
all that will happen is the shops will go down,
people won't be able to pick big parcels up.
If people can't park, they go to out of town and pick things up there.
Local architect Cat has brought me to an upmarket area
of Walthamstow in London.
She has been doing her own research
and is convinced that removing parking and discouraging motorists
is the answer for Kings Heath.
In 2015, the council here closed the road
between ten in the morning and ten at night, seven days a week,
and they took away all the parking bays that used to line the street.
This road seems a million miles from Kings Heath High Street,
but it does have one or two similarities -
like a popular local butcher.
-Is it Ron?
-Hiya. Yeah, Ron.
-Hi, how are you?
-Not too bad.
-My name's Cat.
-Nice to meet you.
-Nice to meet you.
Do you know what the main reason for making the change was?
This was a bit of a rat run,
so the traffic, you were getting up to -
probably around about 2,000 to 3,000 cars a day
going through this stretch of road.
Plus, before the closures came in,
there were cars parked on this road opposite.
-So there was only one track going through,
-so there was congestion and the whole thing was...
So you've just got idling cars outside
-all the time.
-Yes, all the time.
One of the things that I'm hearing from Stan the butcher in Kings Heath
is that he's worried about if no-one can park on the high street,
no-one is going to be able to come in and shop
and that business is going to suffer. Was that your experience?
No. It didn't affect us at all.
In actual fact, we got busier
-because a lot of people were visiting the street...
..and we picked up more business.
Overall, Ron, has it been good or bad for the area?
I think, personally, it's been good.
-That's my personal view.
-And would you say there is someone else
in particular that we should go and speak to on this street?
Mark Finamore, which is two doors down.
-He'll probably have a different view to me.
-All right, thanks very much.
-Thank you very much.
-Good to meet you.
-Good to meet you.
-Thanks for your time.
So far, Cat's heard exactly what she wants to hear,
and it's hard to believe that anyone would object
to the improvements on this street -
but there are two sides to every debate.
The impact on me, I mean, I've been here 28 years now, I think,
is that it's actually quite difficult for my business.
I mean, my passing trade's gone, and also the issue of parking -
it's very limited. You know, it is fantastic here without cars.
I mean, you know, it is.
You can see that for yourself -
but it's just if I come down this end of the road
and there is nowhere for me to actually park and unload,
I have to then circle all the way round
and get to that end of the road to, hopefully, find a space there
to unload and bring things into my shop,
so I'm now creating much more pollution than I ever used to.
This is far from simple.
The street feels great,
but it seems as if the pollution has just been moved elsewhere -
and, I must admit, this looks nothing like Kings Heath to me.
This just feels different enough.
For whatever reason, it's a bit more villagey, it looks a bit different.
It doesn't feel quite enough on its own to win an argument
with Stan and the other sceptics.
How do you think you're going to do that?
I think it's very tricky, because, I think, in many ways,
all of us are set with our own viewpoint.
Even talking to Mark,
I still was reluctant to really see
that it was a bad thing in some ways.
It's still difficult when you really want someone to tell you
what you want to hear. It's very difficult.
The parking bays here..
..are quite a big feature of what they've done.
-Yeah, the lack of parking bays.
-Removing the parking bays...
..and that is a thing that we can trial.
Back in Kings Heath,
Sara's meeting pollution expert Professor Rob MacKenzie
from the University of Birmingham.
He's got an idea about how to disperse
some of the worst of the omissions.
So, this is a computer simulation
-superimposed on a picture of the high street.
-Ooh, that's fun!
So, the red means higher pollution.
-The green means lower pollution.
Is the air coming from the exhausts hot and therefore it rises?
The way I think about this
-is by analogy with blowing across the top of a milk bottle.
That's basically what's happening here - it's circulating inside.
-Because you're blowing across it,
you are giving the top of the air a push...
-..and that's causing all of the rest of the air to follow.
It's a wall of shops either side, isn't it?
-And that's a big problem.
What do you think we can try?
Well, you could look at trying to put barriers
-between the pedestrians and the traffic.
Because in the first instance,
what you're trying to do is just gave the air longer to mix.
So if you think about that hedge, there...
-..you're getting some gain
from pushing the air up over the hedge and down the other side,
because as long as the air is moving,
taking a long time to get from the source
-to the person who's breathing it...
..it's slowly mixing in slightly cleaner air,
and so it's becoming, itself, slightly cleaner.
You're also giving the best opportunity
for the pollution to be deposited onto the leaves.
-I mean, I guess it's a little bit of a suck and see,
-to be absolutely honest.
-As it gets higher...
..I'm still not promising that you'll see any effect,
but what I can say is, the higher it gets...
-..the more likely you'll be to see an effect.
Even though hedges might only make a small difference,
it seems worth a try.
Actions like adding greenery cost money,
and many towns and cities simply don't have budgets
to pay for extras like this -
but this could be a false economy.
In fact, one study has calculated that air pollution costs the UK
£20 billion a year in medical costs and lost labour.
We know that the lungs of children living in polluted areas
are permanently damaged,
so I want to try and persuade parents
not to drive their cars to school on our big day.
To do that, I need evidence that kids' lungs are being damaged.
So, what we want to do is look at how much pollution
you've all been exposed to over the course of your life,
and so Dr Lisa and Dr Norise, here, are experts in looking at that.
What they're going to do is get you to inhale,
basically, some salty water mist.
The salt is going to make everything a little bit looser,
so it's easier for you to cough up.
So it doesn't hurt, it doesn't taste funny.
It tastes a little bit salty.
Just imagine you're on a beach.
So, the kids have just had their nebulisers,
and what that's going to do is loosen up the mucus,
the sputum deep in their lungs
and then they're going to start to do some coughing
and bring up cells from deep in the lungs,
along with the mucus and sputum -
and in those cells, called macrophages,
we're going to be able to count particles of carbon
and the number of particles of carbon
will tell us how much pollution these kids have been exposed to.
-You guys are good!
Oh, that's so horrible!
-Xand is disgusting!
-It's not very dignified, is it?
It's quite... What?! You...
I'm not doing any worse than you were doing!
We know that kids are most exposed
when they are on their way to and from school.
Any changes in their sputum that are down to pollution
are invisible to the naked eye.
The samples will need to be analysed in a lab
to discover what our exposure has been.
It's just ten days before the big experiment.
The team is meeting up to feed back on what they've been doing,
and Tom has got some surprising results from his traffic survey
about who the main culprits are.
Overwhelmingly, the most traffic is actually cars, private cars.
My impression of that was that most of them had one person,
that was the driver, in.
Sorry, I shouldn't really be interpreting,
-I should be just telling you.
I can't help putting my own spin on it! Sorry about that.
The next highest number of vehicles was buses.
There were 64 buses.
That's just about 6%.
HGVs, there was less than I thought there would be,
to be absolutely honest with you. It's about 3%.
And what was shocking, in my view, only 16 bikes in two hours.
Tom will do another survey on the big day
to see if we've made any difference to the number of vehicles.
Buses and lorries may only represent a small proportion
of the overall traffic, but they are major polluters.
National Express runs 80% of the buses in Kings Heath.
To make a difference, we've got to get them on board -
and we've managed to set up a meeting.
I have to say, I'm not feeling very optimistic.
They are a massive, multi-million-pound company
and I'm expecting jobsworths, gatekeepers
and just, sort of... they want to make money -
but we've got to have a go.
In London and Nottingham,
hybrid and electric buses have significantly reduced air pollution.
I'm wondering if Development Director Martin Hancock
can explain why they don't use them here.
Electric is very interesting.
At the moment, the technology doesn't really give us the range
we need for one of our buses.
Electric, I think, is about 150 miles per day without a charge.
Typically, our vehicles are doing 200, 250 miles a day,
so that's a real challenge in how we actually get electric operation
into the West Midlands.
Can you give me a sense of how many buses
you actually have on the high street?
The 50 alone is one of our most frequent services.
It runs every four minutes or so.
It carries 20,000 passengers a day.
That's a sort of decent-sized stadium full of people
-you're moving up and down the high street every day.
Could National Express run fewer buses along the high street
on our day of action?
We really think actually maintaining the timetable
and keeping the same frequency
is the way to get more passengers onto the bus,
so what we could do is offer a special fare for people
to try the service.
That's a much better idea.
That's... Well, I guess that's why you run the bus company and I don't!
This is a compromise for now.
If fewer people drive, that could help get pollution down,
but, long term, cleaner buses could really help here.
Just a few days later,
James and I are up at the crack of dawn
to publicise the whole experiment
on the BBC West Midlands Breakfast Show.
So we've got four days to go.
-This seems like a pretty good way of reaching as many people
as we can. We want to shame them...
-No, we want to inspire them!
-We want to inspire them.
We want to make them feel happy about getting out of their cars.
And empower them with information.
-Do you feel like people will listen?
-I think they'll hear us.
-We've got to persuade them to listen.
It quickly becomes clear that presenter Alex Lester
isn't going to give us an easy ride.
Radio for the West Midlands.
I'm working alongside a task force from Kings Heath in Birmingham.
Kings Heath High Street is very polluted.
It regularly exceeds what we think of as the upper limit
-for air pollution.
-Why did you choose Kings Heath?
Because I know Kings Heath, and I've walked up and down Kings Heath.
I've been at the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath.
I've had some fine times in Kings Heath.
-It's a lovely place.
-I never felt sort of ill
as a result of being in Kings Heath High Street.
Kings Heath is a very, very typical high street.
You could go to any town in England, virtually, and find similar things -
buses, cars stuck in traffic all along the high street,
pouring out the pollution. What we want is people out of their cars
because we know that has a huge effect on air quality.
James, you're a business owner.
Are you going to stand out there on Friday going, "Ah!
"It's so much fresher in Kings Heath.
"Now, where are my customers? Customers, customers, customers...
"Hello, hello, hello..."
-I actually think that we'll see a difference,
a positive difference in the number of pedestrians
and there's lots of evidence out there
that pedestrians spend more money on the high street -
and, actually, in stationary traffic or slow-moving traffic,
pollution is worse when you're inside your car,
so get out of your vehicle,
get the bus, cycle, walk and, actually,
it should be better for the businesses there.
How do you think that went?
-It goes fast, doesn't it?
-I think we got most of the points across.
-I think so.
I didn't want him putting anyone off Kings Heath High Street.
I feel like that's not...
We want people to come, but not use their cars, so I'm hoping...
We didn't mention the buses.
You can deal with that. You can do some flyers.
I'll do that, thanks.
The radio show has given us a big audience across Birmingham,
but there's one group of people I want to engage with personally -
the children of St Dunstan's School on Drayton Road.
Our scientists have put up monitors right outside the school gates
to measure these kids' exposure to exhaust fumes.
Just so you get an idea of the geography,
the high street is right down there at the end of the road,
and just before you get to it is James' Gorilla Cafe,
and at school-run time in the morning and the afternoon
this road is completely jam-packed,
and it's a huge source of traffic problems.
So what I'm hoping is that I can get the kids here
to use their pester power
to get their parents involved in our Clean Air Day.
So, everybody, can you put your hands together and welcome Dr Xand?
So, one of the things that we wanted to know about
is what you think of air pollution.
Do you know what part of the body this is?
You think it's lungs.
You are exactly right.
We did this experiment.
It was quite disgusting, really.
We basically had to do a lot of coughing and splitting into cups.
We got cells out of them
and we looked at the cells under the microscope
and what you can see, there are black dots in all of these cells.
This is one of the kids'. That huge black dot, there,
that's a piece of soot from a diesel engine.
So what we really want to do
is change the pollution on Kings Heath High Street.
Who thinks that's a good idea?
Now, who came to school by car this morning?
Yeah, lots of people, right?
And we know some of you have to come to school by car,
but there might be a few of you who could walk,
who might be able to take a scooter
and see if, on Friday, you could come a different way to school
and make a bit less pollution.
We want you to go home, talk to your to your mum, your dad,
your guardians, whoever looks after you,
and try and get them to help make a difference.
Do you think you can do it?
Who's up for giving it a go?
-Come on! Who's up...? It doesn't sound very enthusiastic!
-Who's up for giving it a go?
Well, that was very encouraging. The kids listened,
or at least they looked like they were listening,
but we only have a few days left till Friday,
till the Clean Air Day, and things like this have to work
if we're going to make a difference to the air pollution around here.
So I'm just hoping those kids will get home
and hassle their parents into making some changes.
Cutting down cars on the school run could have a big impact
on our experiment.
Back on the high street though, it's stop-start driving we have to tackle
and the traffic lights don't seem to be helping.
At the moment, these traffic lights work on timed cycles.
If the lights were synchronised and the parking bays were suspended,
the traffic might run more smoothly,
then I think we stand a fighting chance.
To do any of that, we're going right to the top - to the council.
We're meeting Councillor Lisa Trickett,
who's in charge of making Birmingham a greener city.
We've got a shopping list of demands.
It's notoriously bureaucratic to change anything that affects traffic
and we're working to a tight deadline,
but Lisa has a reputation to live up to.
If it's temporary, we aren't so bound by levels of consultation
and we can argue that we're trialling this, so it is possible.
And surely you're also a bureaucratic ninja, aren't you?
I mean, can't you get your way through all this?
I have the battle scars, yeah.
We didn't get any promises, did we?
-She is a councillor, after all.
-We'll make it happen.
I do actually have some faith, I do have some faith.
It's the day before the big experiment
and the bus company has come good.
They've given us 200 free tickets.
We want people to use buses tomorrow instead of driving,
so Kate is dishing them out on the high street.
We're doing a day of action for clean air
and I'd like to give you one of these and a badge.
-Oh, thank you very much.
-Thank you very much. All right.
-Thank you very much.
-Have a nice day.
-Thank you, and you.
-Come tomorrow and use the bus.
-Ah, good on you.
-Thank you very much.
-Would you like a free bus ticket to come by bus tomorrow?
No? OK, thank you.
-OK, thank you very much.
We haven't yet heard back about synchronising the traffic lights,
but, in the nick of time, we discover that the council
has delivered on the parking bays.
As night falls, the suspension notices go up,
though not everyone is happy.
How do people feel about tomorrow? Stan?
Ideally, if it was purpose-built in what we're doing, fantastic.
I'm all for it.
But as it is now...
..I think, you know, you've got to consult the shopkeepers
that are paying a lot of rents and a lot of rates before you do anything.
For me, what I'm really excited about is
that it starts to build a data bank, an information bank,
for us to start to actually think, is there a better way,
is there something that we can do for our kids
and for our grandkids that is better? Or...
..this is as good as it gets?
We need to do things like this in order to understand
-how we can make improvements.
This evening, some of us, not all of us,
are going to be going out and actually filling those parking bays
The team has managed to get hold of 60 feet of hedging,
Portuguese laurel to be precise,
and to try and make as big an impact on the pollution as possible,
the bushes are nearly six-foot high.
Moving this much shrubbery takes a lot of muscle.
Oh, there we go!
-Ah, it's Xander!
-What are you doing here?
-Can I help?
-Thank you for joining us!
-Thank you for joining us.
-No, I insist.
-Come on, I'll help you. Right, on three.
-This could be heavy.
-One, two, three?
-One, two, three.
-We've done the whole parking bays all the way down.
Oh! This is real work, eh?
You've got it from here, Cat. I think...
-Man, that's the last one.
-Sara, you've got it.
-Well done. Well done.
-Is that it?
-Well, I'm glad I could help.
-That was amazing.
Glad I could be of assistance.
-Has anyone asked about what you're up to?
-Yeah, loads of people.
-We've had a mixed reception.
We've also had cars honking at us going, "Yeah!"
-CAR HONKS Really?
-There you go!
-Honk if you want more hedges.
-Honk for hedges.
-Honk for hedges!
-Well, I'm very impressed.
-There's our slogan!
I'm very impressed, I have to say.
I think we're also a bit mad, to be honest.
-The cold has driven us all mad.
-You do, you are looking all a bit manic,
I have to say. You're looking slightly crazed.
The hedge gang, late at night.
How do you think it's going to go tomorrow?
Do you think it's going to work?
Even if it's one unit of improvement,
I am positive that you will see it.
I think it's going to be really difficult to measure it in one day.
These guys have worked wonders.
They've got all these hedges in,
they've got the parking bays suspended,
they've launched Clean Air Day.
A little help from me, I got a bit of free bus travel,
so that should help. We do have a few other cards up our sleeves,
but I have to say, with a high street like this...
..I don't know if it's going to be enough.
Finally, after weeks of planning and preparation, the big day is here
and it's another early morning date with local radio for me.
This is my last chance to persuade car drivers,
especially parents about to start the school run,
to try something different today.
The trouble is, it's bitterly cold
and I'm worried that today, of all days,
people will prefer their cars to walking.
Some of the pupils from St Dunstan's School
have already made a clever alteration
to the way they get to class.
This is the St Dunstan's walking bus.
Are you doing all right?
Good. This is making me feel very happy, this walk to school.
It's a good way to start the day.
How far do you have to come in the car before you get dropped off?
Right, well, you've all done brilliantly.
Are you excited about Clean Air Day?
The pavement looks busier to me,
but deputy head Mark McLoughlin is better placed to judge it.
I'm on the gate, front of house, morning and afternoon.
And does it look any different today?
Oh, yeah, as I said,
there's a sizeable reduction in the amount of cars, the queueing...
Normally speaking, at this point where we're standing right now,
there might be a queue of cars to the street 150 metres to our left.
This road and the high street have both been rigged with sensors
to measure pollution.
In the pub down the road, the sensors are being monitored
by Professor Roland Leigh from the University of Leicester
and Dr Francis Pope from the University of Birmingham.
It's these two who are going to have to tell us by the end of the day
whether or not our people-power emissions-busting has worked.
It weighs a tonne!
At the top of the high street,
James is busy trying to promote our big day
by putting up an oversized banner.
It looks like the wind is proving something of an obstacle.
While James ties himself up in knots,
Councillor Lisa Trickett has popped down to Kings Heath
and she's got a surprise for me.
She's actually managed to get the traffic light sequencing changed,
although she's not the expert on how it works.
I'm not the person to talk to.
I suggest we go and get Kevin in his bunker
-and have a conversation with him.
-Who's Kevin in the bunker?
He is sort of in charge of traffic and highways.
Hi, can I speak to Kevin?
-Yeah, who's speaking, please?
-Lisa. Councillor Lisa Trickett.
Has the penny dropped?
-Hi, is that Kevin?
-It is, yes.
Xand wanted to know a few things
that were a bit too technical for my liking.
Kevin, are you, with regard to traffic lights on Kings Heath,
you're kind of God, is that right?
What we have got is this control centre.
We've got sight through the CCTV cameras
of what's happening to the traffic.
Birmingham's Traffic Control Centre is about to try an experiment here
for the first time - synching up the lights
to keep traffic flowing smoothly.
They call it the green wave.
If you hit a green light, you can move at a continuous speed
along the high street and, therefore,
not put out too much pollution, is that the idea?
The principle of green waves is exactly that, yep.
That's really good. Well, that is amazing.
-The gods, the gods of traffic.
-The gods, yeah.
Can you literally, like, change the traffic lights behind us?
Yeah, we can change the traffic signals to green right now
with a click of my fingers to Gary.
It's gone green! There you go.
If someone pushes the button,
a pedestrian pushes the button to cross,
-does that mess up the phasing?
-No, it won't.
There will, obviously, be time for pedestrians and cyclists to cross,
but that will be fixed in with the green wave timings.
Kevin, that's brilliant. Thank you very much indeed.
The only problem with making the traffic flow better
is that drivers using sat navs might be re-routed this way
because the road is clearer.
But I wonder if I can harness sat nav technology myself.
One of the things I'm going to try and do to prevent people
driving their cars along the high street,
which is a little bit naughty, but I guess I don't feel too bad about it,
is I'm using one of the traffic apps, one of the navigation apps,
to flag up that the traffic is worse than it actually is.
I'm going to say that it's a standstill.
I'm going to add a comment that this is a nightmare day for traffic here
and then other users will see that and, hopefully,
the app will route them somewhere else.
Of course, this could lead to congestion elsewhere
as people try to get around my blockage.
I don't think I should do it every day,
but I'm hoping, today, that will...
that will make the point that less traffic will reduce the pollution.
Despite everything we've put in place,
the traffic does still appear to be backed up in places,
so are we actually making a difference?
So, this pub is the nerve centre of our monitoring operation
and, in here, the two profs, Roland and Francis,
are crunching the numbers,
so I'm going to find out how we're getting along.
Is it working?
-How are you doing?
-Hey! Very well.
-Very nice to see you.
-Are you doing all right?
-So, how is it going?
A bit early to tell. We've got some data coming in, but, yeah,
hard to say exactly what's happened yet.
We haven't got the data from today ourselves yet.
We've got yesterday's data up until this morning.
-You're not giving anything away.
-Not yet, no.
All right, all right, all right, keep me in suspense.
While I've got them here, I want some more details
on how we can protect ourselves from pollution.
I mean, we've seen some data that says that it can be worse
inside a car than on the street.
Is there anything you can do about that?
Can you put a filter on your car or anything?
Is there a trick to that?
A car will filter its air to an extent
and that works rather better for particulate matter
than it does for NOx, particularly the larger particles,
so if you do just turn to internal circulation when you think
it might be polluted outside,
you will help to an extent with the larger particles.
-Really? That little button that no-one ever presses?
The circle arrow?
If you're sat behind a bus and you can see the plume,
if you just switch to internal circulation,
you will at least avoid pulling in that immediate pollution.
Francis and Roland are comparing all their Kings Heath data
to the general level of pollution in the Birmingham area,
so the experiment will only have worked if Kings Heath has gone down
compared to the rest of the city.
With no results in yet,
I want to know if the traffic has reduced on the high street.
Tom has an army of volunteers out counting cars,
including Charlotte and her son Tom.
-How are you doing?
-All right, thank you.
-You seem quite busy.
-It's a busy high street!
They're very concentrated on doing this traffic survey
and counting the cars as they come by.
Have you got all the ones that have just come?
-How's it going?
-Yeah, we've got a lot of cars.
How many...? You haven't added them up so far.
-You're doing the check marks.
-OK. Ah! Sorry, sorry, sorry.
-This is quite nerve-racking, actually.
-Is it stressful keeping an eye on it all?
Car, car, van.
Worryingly, when they tot up the numbers,
the total volume of traffic hasn't gone down at all.
Despite that, over in Drayton Road, James is having a street party.
He knows that more pedestrians means more footfall,
so he's trying to pull in customers
who might normally have been in cars.
But have the celebrations been premature?
As the afternoon rush hour dies away, it's time to find out.
What you have been trying to do is something really extraordinary
and you are a community of people who've come together
around this issue, so I am absolutely blown away.
My heart is pounding and I am genuinely quite nervous,
so we cannot wait any longer for this information.
Roland, your monitors were on the high street.
-Can you talk us through it?
-OK, so, the high street is challenging.
You've got buses, you've got HGVs.
A lot of places are just exceeding by one or two micrograms.
It might be 42, 43, so even a 5% change
could bring a lot of places into legal compliance.
What you have in your high street today is a reduction of NO2...
-..of 10% from everything you've done...
-..which is absolutely huge.
Well done, everyone. Phenomenal.
That is amazing!
We thought the traffic was flowing a bit more smoothly today
than it was previously.
How much difference do you think that might make?
In my opinion, that's the biggest factor.
That's the biggest change down the high street today, is keeping
the vehicles moving, reducing the stop-start as much as you can.
It really reduces the amount of fuel burnt
and the amount of emissions produced.
Our parking bay suspensions, hedges, bus vouchers
and traffic light changes seem to have paid off.
Around St Dunstan's School, though, we had just one plan -
get people out of their cars.
So did that single strategy work?
You did a great job around the school today.
A lot of parents and a lot of people changed their behaviour
That's a road where you had a lot of control over what went on.
Can we have the numbers?
For NO2, you managed to change the concentrations...
-..by 20%. There was a 20% reduction...
-..in NO2 around the school. Well done.
That is amazing!
-So, so, NOx is a big deal for children's health.
In terms of particles getting into their brains, lung development,
it's the particulate matter that really counts.
-Yeah, I think that's true.
So, we went through the numbers, we crunched the numbers
and I can say...
..that you've managed to reduce it by 30% during drop-off and pick-up.
Wow. That is really good!
-That's massive, right?
-Yeah. That's huge.
And that's a real school with real children
breathing in real pollution. That is amazing.
I mean, this is your road, James.
-It's OUR road.
-It's our community's road.
So I'm really excited that the community action has managed
to make an impact on their wellbeing. Really good.
If you're trying to persuade a parent to leave their car at home,
I mean, that's a stick to beat people with, isn't it?
You know, if you're cutting down particulate matter by 30%...
I mean, you see these numbers all the time.
I mean, there's no safe limit so anything you can reduce,
1% would really help. 30% is massive.
I think the important thing to encourage change
is to have that data cos that makes people want to keep it up,
not just for a special day.
That's... I'm feeling, like, whoa!
Whoa! OK, OK, good stuff.
Can I just say that I have...
..been quietly pessimistic?
And I was pretty much 100% certain
that you would've made no real difference at all.
There are so many people that were pro
and so excited that we were getting up and we were doing something.
We had so many new customers come in today.
So many people that, even though they lived in Kings Heath,
had not heard about us before and out of curiosity they came down.
I've already had two businesses where you put the hedge in
phone me and say, "What's happening? We pay a lot of rent here
"and our customers can't get in to pick things up."
-Oh, no, really?
-Really. Two businesses.
-I thought you were going to say they phoned and were really happy.
Did you get any phone calls from anyone who was happy?
I've only seem to get the groans.
I almost have a sort of lump in my throat.
I really think you have done an extraordinary thing
for the health of your community that maybe will take a while
to sink in and I think it is extraordinary what you've done.
This was just one day in one place,
but what this experiment has shown is that when local people,
the council and businesses come together
it IS possible to make Britain's polluted air cleaner.
I feel absolutely flipping great!
I think the results are absolutely staggering, actually,
especially the school results.
We're going to be benefiting from this, but other people are as well.
So, yeah, definitely worth it. Definitely worth all the cold feet!
We've talked about this sort of thing a lot,
but we've never actually followed through and done it
and it happened today and that's what I really like.
Thank you for showing us the power of communities.
What you're doing is good for people's health,
but I still think we've still got to look after the businesses
in Kings Heath.
I think that what we've been able to start to do is arm people
with information about an unseen danger and I'm really,
really proud of Kings Heath and proud of the people
and proud of what they've done.
MUSIC: Air by Talking Heads
# Some people say not to worry about the air
# Some people never had experience with
# Air... #
Subtitles by Red Bee Media
Imagine if you could change the quality of the air we breathe - in just one day. Air pollution in the UK has been declared a 'public health emergency' and Dr Xand van Tulleken is seeing what can be done about it. Enlisting the help of enthusiasts and sceptics from the Kings Heath community in Birmingham, Xand stages the first ever large-scale experiment of its kind - using people power to try and bring about a quantifiable improvement in air quality for a single day. With the pollution levels on the high street at the cusp of legal limits, the odds are stacked against Xand and his team. Can they achieve the improbable? Can the power of communities - with the help of some ingenious tech and some of the best experts in pollution science - succeed where governments have failed? Xand also becomes a case study in his own experiment. As he carefully tries to rid his body of the effects of pollution, he measures how his body functions are affected after exposing himself to a typical city street. The results are shocking.