This week, Londoners found themselves choking under thick layers of dusty haze. A combination of emissions from continental Europe, domestic pollution, low south-easterly winds and dust blown over from the Sahara (yes, really!) pushed pollution levels to a record high on Thursday morning, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) ranking the smog at 9 out of a possible 10.

Health experts advised those with lung and heart conditions to avoid strenuous activity outdoors – particularly asthmatics, who were warned of the need to use inhalers more often as the probability of having attacks increased.

Saharan dust gathers on PM David Cameron's car Photo: Political Pictures

The crisis comes just weeks after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released the first ever rankings of London’s top 10 causes of death by borough, which list air pollution as playing a part in the top four death categories for males and four of the top five female death categories.

The statistics, whose release was commissioned by the Clean Air in London Organisation, also show an alarmingly large gulf between London and the rest of the UK when it comes to cause of death.

In the capital, more males are dying from tumours of the trachea, bronchus and lung than anywhere else in the country, despite smoking rates being lower. According to Cancer Research UK, in 2010 around 17.5% of Londoners were smokers – much lower than the national average of 21%.

If we examine the statistics of individual London boroughs we can also see shockingly direct links between air pollution and the most prominent recorded death categories. For example, males in Tower Hamlets were more than twice as likely to die of Chronic lower respiratory diseases than males in Brent (63.3 vs 26.1 per 100,000 population).

Of the 32 London boroughs, Barking and Dagenham, Greenwich, Hackney, Haringey, Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington, Lewisham, Newham, Southwark and Tower Hamlets appeared most often in the ‘worst three boroughs’ for the top 10 death categories between 2010 and 2012.

Commenting on these large discrepancies, Dr John Middleton, Vice President for Policy, Faculty of Public Health said, “How long Londoners live for should not be determined by where they live.

“Useful data like this is part of a range of information that public health specialists are trained to understand and use to tackle health inequalities as well as improve and protect people’s health.

          “Longer, healthier lives”

“Local communities need to be confident that everything is being done to help people live longer, healthier lives. That’s why we need the right data in the hands of public health teams in councils across England, working closely with partners like clinical commissioning groups,” he added.

Photo: Simon Birkett

Hinting that these death rates suggest a latent inequality in the healthcare provided to Londoners, Founder and Director of Clean Air in London Simon Birkett said, “The huge variation in death rates for different death categories across boroughs may raise serious questions about inequalities and the competence and culpability of London authorities.

     “Air pollution is where smoking was 30 years ago”

“Politicians and officials must stop saying behind closed doors they don’t want to frighten the public about air pollution and do something to warn and protect people and reduce air pollution quickly.

“In London and across Europe, air pollution is killing more than 10 times the number of people dying from road traffic accidents. At its simplest, in public health terms, ‘invisible’ air pollution is where smoking was 30 years ago in terms of the scale and certainty of the risks and the lack of public understanding of them,” he continued.

Expressing her concern at the particularly high pollution levels in her area, Islington resident Charlotte Gilford, 57, told Prepared London: “it’s really concerning to know that Islington has one of the worst rates of pollution in London.

“Long-term damage”

“Lots of people cycle through here thinking it’s a clean environment, but it’s awful that just walking around here could do long-term damage.

“I always thought Islington was quite a progressive place, but it’s clear it’s backwards when it comes to pollution-control.

“If it gets worse, which it certainly will, cancer units and undertakers alike will have to be prepared for an awful lot more custom. The government should be doing more!”

The ONS and Clean Air London are not the only ones warning of London’s pollution problem. In March London Assembly Green Party member Jenny Jones released figures showing that all of London’s boroughs are currently in breach of EU air pollution regulations, as visualised in the chart below:

Any substantial action taken to reduce levels of pollution would, it is hoped, reduce the number of deaths falling within the worst-offending death categories. This raises an interesting moral question: should those working in the death industry support such action, given that it would likely decrease the demand for their businesses?

The Top-10 death categories in Greater London in 2012 were:

(Death categories which include air pollution as one of the causes are highlighted in bold):

Male:

  1. Ischaemic heart diseases (e.g. heart attacks)
  2. Malignant neoplasm of trachea, bronchus and lung (e.g. lung cancer)
  3. Chronic lower respiratory diseases
  4. Cerebrovascular diseases (e.g. strokes)
  5. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  6. Influenza and pneumonia
  7. Malignant neoplasm of prostate
  8. Malignant neoplasm of colon, sigmoid, rectum and anus (e.g. bowel cancer)
  9. Malignant neoplasm of lymphoid, haematopoietic and related tissue (e.g. Hodgkin’s Disease and leukaemia)
  10. Heart failure and complications and ill-defined heart disease

Female:

  1. Ischaemic heart diseases
  2. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  3. Cerebrovascular diseases
  4. Malignant neoplasm of trachea, bronchus and lung
  5. Chronic lower respiratory diseases
  6. Malignant neoplasm of breast
  7. Influenza and pneumonia
  8. Heart failure and complications and ill-defined heart disease
  9. Malignant neoplasm of colon, sigmoid, rectum and anus
  10. Diseases of the urinary system

Are you a palliative care worker in London caring for patients who have been affected by London’s high pollution levels? Are you a funeral director dealing with cases of death caused by the pollution? Does London’s pollution affect your business in any way, and would you prefer death rates to remain higher if it guaranteed the prosperity of your business?

We want to hear your thoughts. Join the discussion by Tweeting us @PreparedLondon.