At first, the noise from the road was what kept us awake at night – tyres squealing, racers blasting down the three-lane highway at 1am. Pretty quickly we started worrying about a different, more deadly consequence of living so close to the main road.
It’s not the vehicles themselves, it’s what they produce. They sit in rows outside our window, engines revving, waiting for the lights to change. As we walk to work, we pass them – holding our breath as we walk past the stationary traffic. In winter we breathe into the scarves at our necks. In summer, we choke.
Summer is particularly bad. The hot weather means everyone is trying to cool down as much as possible, throwing windows wide open. The first summer, I was horrified at the layer of black dust that fell on my windowsill after a day of trying to catch a breeze. This summer I keep the windows open and the curtains closed, in a vain attempt to minimise the amount of polluted air circulating through our home.
It is terrifying to wake up every day and not have a choice but to breathe air that is filled with poison. Aside from the eight hours a day of clean air that my office provides, all we can do is take detours away from the busiest roads on our commutes, and buy as many air-purifying plants as we can afford.
We are lucky – soon we will be moving to houses where we can breathe air that might legally be safe. There are thousands of people who do not have this choice.
In spring the family next door welcomed a new baby – a little boy. What horrifies me is that this child, four months old, has never breathed clean air. From the moment he arrived home, he has been breathing the same air that leaves that horrible black dust on my windowsill. It’s in his lungs. It’s in his older brother and sister’s lungs, and the other children they play with, outside into the early hours of the evening.
We will leave. We can leave. This tiny new-born will not. He will grow up with black dust in his lungs. He has no choice: and so, when we leave, we leave him to the future that is predicted for him in newspaper headlines. Diesel pollution will stunt his lung growth. Particulates will alter the development of his heart, making him more susceptible to heart failure. And that’s just the major, physical future. He’ll also be more likely to have depression by the age of 18, and is more likely to develop schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The effect doesn’t stop once he’s an adult – in 50 years’ time, he’ll also be more likely to develop dementia thanks to the air he is breathing next door, right now.
There’s a chance he won’t even make it that far. Babies exposed to air pollution have a greater risk of dying in their first year of life than those breathing safe air.
The point of this is not to shame your efforts. Bristol is a unique city, and I genuinely believe that the will to change, to make the place that we are so proud to call home a place where we are all safe, is absolutely there. It is therefore even more confusing, and hurtful, to see the plans to ‘solve’ the air pollution crisis put on hold once again. While I understand the processes involved, every day that passes without action is another one where thousands of us live in a dangerous environment.
It is no longer acceptable to put the convenience of some people before the lives of others. It is criminal to continue to appease the worries of a minority on their business procedures while we are choking, waiting for you, the people we elected to represent us, to look after us and our children.
Be ambitious, be brave: stand up for us. Pledge to help us properly, not just with words and a ten-year plan, but with immediate action. Ban diesel cars, close roads to HGVs, do it from seven to seven every day. Be radical. Set the standard for other cities to follow. Lead the way.
You have a responsibility to your public. Your first and foremost concern must be to ensure the safety of the people you have a duty of care towards. It is your job to keep us safe, because we do not have the power to make the changes that we so desperately need ourselves. We have put our faith and our trust in you, our lives in your hands. Please, take a step towards valuing life over profit, over economy and business, and help us.
Charlotte Perkins is an environmental advocate, dog lover and feminist