London’s Toxic Tube and what to do about it

September 3, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

I thought I’d post some of the top blog posts from this year’s students in my LSE class on ‘Advocacy, Campaigning and Grassroots activism. Their individual assignment was to design a campaign strategy for a cause close to their hearts, and write a blog about it. Here’s Lucy Shearer presenting her campaign to clean up London’s underground.

If like me, you are one of the 2 million people who use London’s Underground every day, you will be well accustomed to its oddities. From the stench of sweaty commuters, to stand offs with battle-hardened rats, you might ask, “why do we put ourselves through this torture?” Along with pissing rain and guerrilla pigeons, the Underground is one of the many inconveniences we put up with to bask in the smug pride of calling ourselves “Londoners”. But is there something more sinister in the air than sweaty pits? While common belief dictates that roads are the most polluted part of our Capital, a more concerning cocktail of toxic gas lies under its pavements.

The Science Bit

Well, to be precise, it’s not a “gas”. The Underground air is poisoned by tiny bits of particulate matter known as PM2.5. A Government report found that high exposure to PM2.5 can exacerbate lung and heart conditions. Children, the elderly and those with respiratory and cardiovascular disease, are most susceptible to its impacts. An investigative report by the  Financial Times found that in some stations, the pollution levels surpass the World Health Organisation’s ‘safe limit’ tenfold!

Researcher Brynmour Sanders,  suggested that a person who commutes on the Tube for one hour a day would face an increased chance of death. In essence, Londoners are paying the deadly price of a 157 year-old tube system. Decades of daily use and insufficient cleaning has left our tube choking; the worst offenders being the oldest and deepest lines.

Surely this isn’t allowed… right?

Statements issued by Transport for London pronounce, “we believe the air is absolutely safe.” Lucky for them, the UK’s “safety” threshold for PM2.5 is currently much higher than the threshold set by the World Health Organisation. This is despite 9000 Brits dying prematurely from air pollution every year, and the NHS declaring air pollution a Public Health Emergency. Government commissioned reports on London’s PM2.5 problem have completely failed to mention the Tube…all 250 miles of it. For this reason it is up to the public to bring the focus of politicians  underground. London’s leaders need to hear loud and clear that we want tube air to be bought into full compliance with the WHO’s PM.25 thresholds.

A problem shared is a problem halved

The issue at the heart of this is that people don’t know about it. If you’re the social media sort – spread the word and click that share button! Or do one better and tweet a London Mayor candidate and ask them what they plan to do about it. Indeed, the next Mayor will have considerable sway over how money and attention is spent across London. So, if you’re a Londoner, I urge you to research the candidates’ stance on air pollution before you cast a vote in May 2021. I’ll leave the politics up to you, but a word of warning… some of the candidates really hate clean air. Or at-least, their voting records say so.

Please don’t misunderstand me…

I think the tube is incredibly important, especially for those who rely on its affordability and reliability. The injustice is that despite being the 5th wealthiest city in the world, London’s citizens unknowingly compromise their health every time they step underground. I think we deserve better. Come on London, clean up your act, #cleanupyourair.

September 3, 2020
Duncan Green