Londoners are warned not to engage in any strenuous physical activity as Britain’s capital battles rough pollution.

Ironically, wood stoves are partly to blame for this. Image credits: David Holt.

For the first time, mayor Sadiq Khan has issued a toxic air alert for the city, after detectors in several parts of the city (Westminster, north Kensington, and three sites in Camden) recorded abnormally high pollution in the air.

“The shameful state of London’s toxic air today has triggered a ‘very high’ air pollution alert under my new air quality warning system,” wrote Mr Khan in a tweet.

“London’s filthy air is a health crisis and our children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of air pollution,” he added in a further statement.

The new alert system, Airtext, was launched last summer and displays pollution levels on electronic signs at bus stops, metro stations, and in some places, on the roadside.

In the very high level, all adults are advised to avoid intense physical activity outside, and people at risk (children, elderly, and those with lung problems) to avoid physical activity altogether. Khan has urged people to use public transportation and drivers to behave more responsibly, but this is too little in a crowded city that’s been struggling with pollution for a long time.

It’s not like this came out of nowhere. In January 2016, London broke its NO2 pollution limits in just 8 days and was promptly sued as a response. They lost the trial and are taking some action, but it’s clearly not enough. London’s pollution is constantly high and there’s no real improvement in sight. Even during regular days, most of the city still suffers high pollution levels — something that shouldn’t really happen in any large city, let alone one like London.

Ironically, for a city that prides itself on technological advancement and innovation, wood burning stoves were blamed for exacerbating the problem. It’s been unusually cold in London these days, and apparently, people are turning to wood stoves to fix that problem. Demand for such stoves has tripled in the last five years and continues to increase as people want to save money on electricity. But the cost is clearly too great — it costs Londoners their health.

“Children living and attending school in highly polluted areas are more likely to have damaged lungs when they grow up,” said Dr Penny Woods, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation. “

Bad air in Britain causes some 50,000 early deaths and amounts to £27.5bn (US$33,84bn) in damages every year, the government estimates. Many of those take place in London.

“Air pollution contributes to 9,500 early deaths in London every year. It worsens existing lung conditions and increases the risk of getting lung cancer,” Woods added. “It’s a complete no-brainer: investing in making cycling and walking safer and more accessible in our cities – and moving towards ditching diesel will not only help clear up our roads, but will clean up the air we’re all breathing too.”

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