Academic discusses impact of region’s air pollution

Mon 08 November, 2021
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A professor from the University of Bedfordshire has spoken about the impact of pollution on local areas in a special climate crisis report by the BBC, as the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference continues.

Gurch Randhawa, Professor of Diversity in Public Health and Director of the Institute for Health Research (IHR) at the University, was interviewed by BBC Look East on what is said to be Bedford’s ‘most polluted’ road – Prebend Street. In a 2020 Bedford Borough Council air quality report, although the town was mostly very good, this road was highlighted as a ‘hot spot’ where pollution continues to build up.

During his interview, Professor Randhawa highlighted the issue of regional air pollution, with a particular focus on the town of Bedford, where ‘pockets’ of high levels of nitrogen dioxide can be found due to certain locations and aspects of the roads, such as junctions, roundabouts and pedestrian crossings which cause ‘standing’ traffic.

Speaking to the reporter, he said: “We know that poor air quality can impact upon people’s health in terms of respiratory illnesses and lung function, and our challenge is - how do we improve the environment around us?”

Professor Randhawa also addressed Bedford Borough Council’s plans to work with Sustrans - the charity behind the National Cycle Network – to improve cycle networks and encourage people to use their cars less. However, he warned that roads need to be made safe for residents to cycle on.

Speaking while standing on Prebend Street in Bedford, Professor Randhawa added: “It’s very easy for people to say we should all cycle more and walk more, but if you take this road for example, it’s just simply not wide enough [for both bikes and cars]. So, although people are saying ‘use your cars less, cycle more, walk more’, it needs to be safe to do so.”

Professor Randhawa was interviewed for the piece by BBC News’ Young Reporter competition winner for the East region, Erin Osgood, who chose to focus her news story around her local town after witnessing first-hand the increasing levels of cars and traffic in and around Bedford. According to a 2013 study into Air pollution and health risks due to vehicle traffic by scientists from the Universities of Texas and Michigan, traffic congestion increases vehicle emissions and degrades air quality which has impacted greatly on the health and mortality rates of drivers, commuters and people living near busy roads and junctions.

About her winning pitch and special COP26 news feature, Erin said: "When I thought about the climate issues that have the biggest impact locally, air pollution was the first thing to come to mind. It's far from unique to Bedford of course, but the fact that it is such a universal problem really affected me. It's especially worrying how the poorest in our society are likely to suffer the most – even the air we breathe is not a level playing field.

"If I've learnt anything from Professor Randhawa's expertise it is that small local initiatives – while still important – simply aren't enough to seriously combat air pollution. Cleaning up our air requires colossal change, both in terms of our behaviour and our infrastructure. I would love to see more policies to incentivise greener ways of living, while also considering the individual cost of becoming environmentally conscious. Rome wasn't built in a day, but we don't have any more days to waste when it comes to our air quality."

Erin's air pollution segment featuring Professor Gurch Randhawa aired on BBC Look East news and on the region’s weekly BBC Politics programme.

Professor Randhawa is also involved in the CHILL study (Children’s Health in London & Luton), which is currently examining the long-term effects of air pollution on the lungs of school children in Luton and England’s capital city.

During the four-year study, over 3,000 primary-aged children from schools involved in CHILL project are assessed every week. As part of this collaborative study that involves the University of Bedfordshire, researchers will investigate whether pollution control measures, such as London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, can improve children’s lung growth and prevent damage to their health. The project will conclude in the summer of 2023. For updates, follow @CHILLpollution on Twitter.

For more information about current research being conducted by the University’s Institute for Health Research (IHR) and to discover PhD opportunities, visit: www.beds.ac.uk/ihr

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