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Dirty Secrets: What's Really In Our Air? Channel 4 Dispatches

New findings that pollution could be much more dangerous than previously thought are revealed tonight (Monday 22nd February) by Channel 4’s Dispatches.

DIRTY SECRETS: WHAT'S REALLY IN OUR AIR? also discloses that preliminary, unpublished, sampling indicates potentially high levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide and particulates at Network Rail’s showpiece New Street Station in Birmingham. New Street is the busiest railway station in Britain outside London. In response, Network Rail told Dispatches they will commission research to discover more about the make up of air in the station, which is used by 170,000 passengers every day.

The programme reveals new evidence challenging the previously-held belief that pollution simply exacerbates asthma. Professor Jonathan Grigg of Queen Mary University of London - one of Britain’s leading experts on the effect of pollution on children – tells Dispatches that preliminary research from his team shows pollution may actually cause it.

Professor Grigg says: “Air pollution is the modern invisible killer. We should all be worried about it and in my view how the levels of air pollution that we’re exposed to are a public health disaster.”

And new work by a scientist in Barcelona –disclosed on Dispatches for the first time – shows that the brains of children who live in polluted areas react more slowly during memory and concentration tests.

Professor Jordi Sunyer, who two years ago won the world’s most prestigious prize for environmental research for his previous work on the effects of pollution on children, gave 300 youngsters MRI scans. “We’ve just discovered when we brain scanned a set of the children, more than 300…that the brain reacts much slower… in children that came from schools with higher pollution.

Morland Sanders uses hi-tech monitors to investigate hidden pollution hotspots in our daily lives, and discovers that we can breathe in far more pollution than official figures suggest. He uncovers new research indicating that, as well as potentially causing tens of thousands of early deaths through heart attacks and strokes, pollution may damage children's learning ability and, as well as making their asthma worse, may also cause the condition in the first place.

Health effects of pollution are greater than previously understood.

Studies have shown that pollution can have a far greater impact on the human body than previously believed, and from a much younger age.

On days of high pollution, Professor David Newby from Edinburgh says there are greater incidences of cardiac events such as heart attacks and strokes, and people living in polluted environments are more susceptible to develop heart disease.

Professor Jordi Sunyer from Barcelona, has found that children who went to schools in areas of higher pollution scored lower in tests of memory and thinking skills. They studied 3,000 children between the ages of 7-9 in 40 schools. They found that children in areas of high pollution took longer in solving the problems, and made more mistakes. They also found that on days of high pollution the performance was worse, whatever the school. The team in Barcelona did MRI scans of the brains of hundreds of children undergoing tests on their thinking skills. The scans show the brains of children living in areas of high pollution reacted more slowly in tests involving memory, concentration, and reaction time compared with children living in areas of lower pollution. On days of high pollution children everywhere were affected.

Pollution also adversely affects lung capacity in a long lasting manner - preliminary research from Professor Jonathan Grigg's team at London’s Queen Mary University, has found evidence that pollution changes children's lungs at a cellular level - suggesting that pollution causes asthma rather than just aggravating it. His team tested hundreds of children walking to school across Greater London. Grigg tells Dispatches, “we are finding evidence that air pollution actually causes asthma, rather than just exacerbates asthma.’

Pollution also adversely affects lung capacity in a long lasting manner - preliminary research from Professor Jonathan Grigg's team at London’s Queen Mary University, has found evidence that pollution changes children's lungs at a cellular level - suggesting that pollution causes asthma rather than just aggravating it. His team tested hundreds of children walking to school across Greater London. Grigg tells Dispatches, “we are finding evidence that air pollution actually causes asthma, rather than just exacerbates asthma.’

Pollution hotspots worse than official maps indicate

Official monitors for pollution measure air pollution, but do not represent the hotspots of pollution that most of us are exposed to on a regular basis. Short bursts of high levels of pollution are a cause for concern, and official monitors used to measure air pollution do not represent these hotspots as they move and can be fleeting. Particular hotspots including waiting for a bus by a busy lane, waiting to drop your child to school in the morning rush hour, or sitting in traffic in your car.

In large cities the Government’s pollution maps can never tell the whole story. They are based on the results on a number of monitoring stations and the pollution levels can easily fluctuate dependent on location.

One place of particular concern are train platforms, such as the platforms at the newly renovated Birmingham New Street station- with over 1,000 trains travelling through the station per day, commuters waiting in the tunnels could be faced with very high levels of pollution, including both nitrogen dioxide and particulates.

The EU stipulates that particulate levels – averaged over a year – shouldn’t go above a specific limit. Birmingham University have measured the particulates at Birmingham New Street, and their preliminary sampling results, not yet peer reviewed, indicate high-levels of pollution that are a cause for concern. They have discovered levels on some platforms that appear to be four times the EU limit. On other platforms they appeared to be more than six times and on some nearly seven times. Channel 4 Dispatches carried out their own sampling measurements, which again indicate a cause for concern.

Researchers at Birmingham University, led by Professor John Thornes, tell Dispatches have tried to tell Network Rail about their concerns and findings – in particular about the NO2 levels"

Network Rail have now told Dispatches they’re keen to understand ‘…the quality and make-up of the air at Birmingham New Street Station...We will be asking Birmingham University to investigate this for us in more detail.’ They want the station to be‘…a safe and healthy environment’ and say in the coming years they will shift to ‘less polluting electric trains’

High pollutants in unexpected places

We followed the Davidson family around for two weeks, as they went about their daily life, to monitor how much pollution they are exposed to. We gave them two pollution monitors to take around with them, and a camera to keep a video diary.

We found they were subject to hotspots of pollution when they were driving to work, running on the road, taking the children to school, and even when having dinner at home - even on days that official monitors say is low pollution. These are some of their findings:

The biggest surprise was while cooking dinner at home for the kids, the family faced huge increases in pollution readings - in fact it was the highest of all readings and higher than the pollution levels by the side of a main road.

In the car, on one of the days of testing, sitting in traffic exposed Wayne to very high levels of NO2 - but when he put the air recirculation on, it reduced levels by 50%

Wayne’s five-year old son took in more pollution than dad Wayne when walking to school - because he's shorter, and closer to car exhausts. Young children are particularly vulnerable, they are nearer to the emissions from road traffic and they breathe faster. Professor John Grigg says ‘Children’s immature defence mechanisms and developing organs means they are uniquely vulnerable to the adverse effects.’

Jogging, when we run along a main road whilst jogging we are open to high levels of pollution, but increased breathing rates mean that we take more of the pollutants into our lungs. Professor Jonathan Grigg says, ‘we’ve seen very good evidence that you will get a higher dose of particles down deep into your lung if you’re exercising vigorously…Most of us are relatively healthy and the damage is going to be small and probably recoverable, but if you’re vulnerable may cause significant problems.’

Note to Editors:

The Royal College of Physicians are publishing ‘Every Breath We Take: The Life Long Impact of Air Pollution’ on Tuesday 23rd February. Demonstrating that air pollution is more dangerous than we ever thought.

DIRTY SECRETS: WHAT'S REALLY IN OUR AIR?: CHANNEL 4 DISPATCHES, Monday 22nd February at 8pm

Reporter: Morland Sanders

Producer/ Director: Roger Corke

Executive Producer: Eamonn Matthews

Production Company: Quicksilver Media

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