“Choked Street”: students exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution

By Cameron McAllister

Local campaigners have warned of “dangerously polluted air” in Durham City, including important student thoroughfares like Church Street and residential areas popular with students like Gilesgate and Neville’s Cross.

The National Air Quality Objective for nitrogen dioxide limits mean annual levels to 40 µg/m3. Some parts of Church Street exceeded this limit every year between 2011 and 2019, with reduced levels in 2020 and 2021 attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic and the closure of the New Elvet Bridge, which has since reopened.

The situation is so dire on Church Street – which runs between the Students’ Union at Dunelm House to the Bill Bryson Library – that Elvet Clean Air, a group of local residents working for cleaner air in Durham, have branded it “Choked Street”.

Elvet Clean Air have launched a survey for residents of the Elvet Triangle to share their ideas on tackling poor air quality and improving street safety in the area and are keen to receive more responses from students.

“We need to get the voice of the students to do two things: one, to tell them that there’s a problem here; and two, to ask them for suggestions for change because we have a broader vision than this.” Steve Lindsay of Elvet Clean Air told Palatinate.

“There are students that live on that road [Church Street] and every student walks down that road all the time, so it’s definitely worrying just from a health perspective”

Poppy Jopson, ECO DU

Poppy Jopson, Head Facilitator at the Durham University climate action group ECO DU, believes that the University has a duty of care to students with regards to local air pollution to “do something about it. Or at least […] push the Council on it.”

“It’s definitely worrying from a student perspective. There are students that live on that road [Church Street] and every student walks down that road all the time, so it’s definitely worrying just from a health perspective.”

Jane Robson, Director of Estates Operations, Estates and Facilities, Durham University, said:

“We are working to reduce the impact University activities have on air quality in support of our own sustainability goals and Durham County Council’s (DCC’s) wider plans to improve air quality across the City.

“Through our Integrated Sustainable Travel Plan (ISTP) we are working to cut the number of vehicles visiting our estate by lowering the proportion of single-occupancy car journeys, which has also been supported by the move to hybrid working.

“In addition to this, we are also encouraging greater use of public transport, walking and cycling, increasing the use of low emissions vehicles and reducing the impact of services and deliveries to the University.

“We work closely with DCC to help address the impact of travel and congestion. DCC is represented on our ISTP Steering Group and is involved in developing our travel plans.

“We look forward to continuing to work with DCC to help them reduce emissions and improve air quality for the benefit of the entire community.”

The University also pointed towards subsidised public transport, investment in walking and cycling infrastructure, and the upcoming trial of an app to promote car sharing as examples of initiatives likely to have a positive impact on air quality.

“We are working to reduce the impact University activities have on air quality in support of our own sustainability goals and Durham County Council’s wider plans to improve air quality across the City”

Jane Robson, Durham University

Provisional results for 2022 suggest the Air Quality Objective for nitrogen dioxide may have been again surpassed on Church Street last year.

But Church Street isn’t the only area of Durham with dangerously high air pollution. Other areas of Durham City, including in Gilesgate and Neville’s Cross, have been found to exceed the annual mean National Air Quality Objective for nitrogen dioxide.

Importantly, 40 µg/m3 is not a safe limit for nitrogen dioxide. The World Health Organization (WHO) standard is four times lower, and it is accepted that there is no safe level of air pollution. The WHO has named Air pollution as the biggest environmental threat to human health.

Up to 36,000 deaths per year in the UK are linked to long-term exposure to man-made air pollution. Short term exposure, over hours or days, can exacerbate asthma, reduce lung function, and increase respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions.

“To make it real, do you remember the case of the young girl, the 9-year-old girl, that died of asthma and the coroner concluded that her cause of death was air pollution?” explains Lindsay. “It’s the same levels of air pollution that that young girl experience. They’re in Church Street.”

That young girl was Ella Kissi-Debrah. In 2020, a coroner ruled that the “excessive” and illegal level of air pollution she had been exposed to – primarily due to traffic emissions – had contributed to her death.

Defra has estimated that 80% of the emissions of nitrogen oxides in areas of the UK which are exceeding nitrogen dioxide limits are due to transport – with the largest source being diesel cars and vans.

While nitrogen dioxide is the main pollutant in Durham, particulate matter (PM) is also a leading contributor to poor air quality. Petrol and diesel vehicles are both sources of PM2.5 air pollution, fine particulate matter with particles generally of less than 2.5 µm in diameter, along with industrial processes and domestic combustion.

Outdoor air pollution, particularly PM, has been classified a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

“One of the missing pieces of the jigsaw is student population. We haven’t had a voice from them”

Steve Lindsay, Elvet Clean Air

Durham County Council has a legal obligation to assess air quality across the county. If a likely breach of an air quality objective is identified, the council must then declare an Air Quality Management Area, before agreeing a plan to improve air quality in that area.

Part of Church Street was added to the Durham City AQMA in September 2022. The area includes many air pollution hotspots throughout the city, including in Neville’s Cross and Gilesgate.

The Durham City Air Quality Action Plan was approved in June 2016. As Air Quality Action Plans are reviewed every 5 years, a review of the plan began in 2021.

Modelling in the initial stage of this review has suggested that locations in Gilesgate and on Church Street will continue to exceed the nitrogen dioxide objective in 2024. As Lindsay puts it, “It’s very simple: same old, same old is not an option. We’ve got to do something. So, what is it?”

Owen Cleugh, Durham County Council’s public protection manager, said: “We’ve put a number of measures in place under our existing Air Quality Action Plan for Durham City.

“These include traffic control systems to ease congestion, steps to reduce emissions from buses and the development of cycle ways alongside work to encourage car sharing, walking and cycling, and greater use of public transport.

“We are currently reviewing the plan and as part of that we’re appraising and assessing a number of options.

“Once the options appraisal and assessment process is complete, we will produce an updated version of the plan and we will then go out to consultation with a number of stakeholders, including Durham University, on its contents.”

In a consultation meeting organised by Elvet Clean Air, residents of Church Street and the surrounding area supported more electric car charging points, the introduction of a one-way system, and reducing or eliminating student cars from the city centre.

No students attended the consultation, but Lindsay and Jopson agree that students should play an important part in the conversation surrounding tackling Durham City’s poor air, in efforts which could also help to unite the local community.

“My view at the moment – because I work in international health and we’ve been doing this sort of thing for years – is: ‘what do the community think?’” said Lindsay. “And the students are very much part of that community … One of the missing pieces of the jigsaw is student population. We haven’t had a voice from them.”

“It’s not just the University that be we need to be paying attention to,” adds Jopson. “I think the ‘town-gown’ divide is not brilliant, so we’re trying to […] work on bridging that and engaging with the community a bit more because we do have a responsibility [to] look after the city that we’re living in.”

To complete Elvet Clean Air’s survey visit: https://bit.ly/ElvetCleanAir

Image: Thomas Tomlinson

One thought on ““Choked Street”: students exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution

  • they should make a cycle lane 🙂

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.