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Airborne Particulate Matter (PMs)

Questions to the Mayor of London – answered on 12th February 2020.

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Photo of David Kurten David Kurten Brexit Alliance

What level of particulate matter (PMs) do you consider to be hazardous to human health?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

All Londoners deserve to breathe clean air. We have been cleaning up, since I became Mayor, our buses and taxi fleets, improving air quality around schools, supporting Londoners to make more trips by active or sustainable modes, and encouraging a switch to electric vehicles. Last year we introduced the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in the face of opposition from some Members of the Assembly ‑ the world’s toughest vehicle emission standards ‑ in central London to reduce toxic air pollution and protect public health. The ULEZ is already having a real impact with roadside nitrogen dioxide pollution reducing by around a third in the zone. This shows what we can achieve when we are brave enough to implement such ambitious policies.

When it comes to hazards to human health, I take my advice from medical experts. The World Health Organisation (WHO) states, “There is no safe level for ambient particulate matter and there is evidence of some health effects even at lower levels”. They have set an annual average recommended guideline of 10 micrograms per cubic metre. The best current evidence links concentrations above this level to the most severe health impacts. This standard refers explicitly to particulate matter in ambient outside air. There is not yet an equivalent for indoors. This limit is under review by medical experts and I will continue to be led by evidence.

Despite recent improvements, the vast majority of Londoners still live in areas that exceed this limit and that is unacceptable. That is why under my leadership London was the first world megacity to pledge to meet the WHO guidelines by 2030 and my Environment Strategy lays out the necessary actions to bring London’s toxic air down to these safer levels, including the expansion of the ULEZ, but we cannot do it alone. We need the support of central Government and crucially the additional powers I have requested to tackle non‑transport sources of toxic pollution.

Photo of David Kurten David Kurten Brexit Alliance

Thank you for your answer, Mr Mayor, but you must know that the legal limit for PM2.5s, which is the measure it is usually taken as, is 25 micrograms per cubic metre and it has been decreasing since 2008, before you became Mayor. Yes, it has decreased as well since you have been Mayor, but it was already going down beforehand.

On the Tube, in the Victoria line, we have a level of 361 micrograms per cubic metre. That is 15 times the legal limit set by the EU which you so love. Is that a matter of urgency for you to deal with, Mr Mayor?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

It is a matter of urgency. Can I just distinguish Tube dust and the particulate matter we see in the ambient outdoor air? Tube dust tends to be iron oxide and there is some work being done by experts from around the world, who include Europeans who are EU citizens, some who are British residents and some who are not. TfL commissioned a report from the committee on the medical effects of air pollution. That concluded there was currently insufficient evidence of the health effects of Underground particulate matter and more research is needed. We have commissioned that research.

We are working with others to do further research, including King’s [College London], Imperial [College] and Queen Mary [University], but it is a source of concern and that is why we have paid for a clean air exercise. This has led to proactive action to prevent and contain Tube dust at source, which is a £60 million cleaning regime. The good news is that initial trials have shown a 73% reduction in respirable dust on the Piccadilly line following the trial. We are now going to go into doing a similar trial on the Bakerloo and the line you mentioned, the Victoria line, as well.

Photo of David Kurten David Kurten Brexit Alliance

OK. Thank you for your answer and it is good there has been a reduction, but there was a letter from TfL written to the Environment Committee in October [2019] that said they are going to be testing for chromium‑6 and arsenic. Arsenic, as you know, is a highly toxic substance and chromium‑6 is a class 1 carcinogen. What will you do if it is found that there are significant levels of those two substances in the air that people are breathing in the Tube?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

I hope you are reassured by the fact that TfL is leading the way. We are not burying away reports. What we are doing instead is commissioning reports to find out what the situation is. TfL will do what they always do, which is follow the advice from the experts where they can. You will be aware one of the challenges we have is that TfL has the oldest Underground in the world, it is very deep and some of the tunnels are very narrow, which means the space is limited between the train and the station. We will do what needs to be done to make sure we improve the situation.

Photo of David Kurten David Kurten Brexit Alliance

Great. That deals with the Underground. Now let me ask you another question about what is happening above ground because we know that PM2.5s are within the legal limit, we know that nitrogen dioxide levels have come down, but you are proposing that from October 2020 lorries will have to pay a £100 fee to come into the Low Emission Zone. That is the whole of greater London. That is not including more recent lorries but it is including Euro IV and Euro V lorries and that is going to be devastating for a lot of haulage businesses, particularly businesses that have renewed their fleets perhaps in 2014 and 2015 and bought a whole new load of Euro V lorries to carry out their businesses. Will you consider those plans, considering the devastating effects that it is going to have on a lot of haulage businesses? I do not think that is the right thing for you to do in terms of business in London.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

The Assembly Member in his question referred to the reductions in nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter without giving credit for why the reductions happened. Last year there was a one‑third reduction in nitrogen oxides (NOx) and a 13% reduction in particulate matter directly attributable to the ULEZ in central London. The obvious question that begs is: why can we not increase the pace of progress in reducing nitrogen dioxide, NOx and particulate matter? The answer is that with me as Mayor, we can.

One of the ways we can do that is that this year, you are right, we will be taking action against the bigger vehicles who are polluting. The very easy thing to do is to have compliant vehicles but if you are going to pollute you should pay. From next year we will be extending the ULEZ up to the North Circular and South Circular for other vehicles currently caught by the central section.

I make this point ‑‑

Photo of David Kurten David Kurten Brexit Alliance

Mr Mayor, I wish we could carry on but I am sort of out of time here. I do not agree with your assessment that that is the right thing to do for the future but perhaps we can carry on this conversation over a cup of tea. That would be very nice.