Our Widely Varying Reactions to Threats
The BBC posted a headline on the 3rd of March that said, ‘Coronavirus: Up to a fifth of UK workers ‘off sick at same time.’ This is according to Government plans that also state the police may be forced to respond only to the most serious crimes and to maintain public order.
People are worried and Government is acting. Thank goodness. The world is coming together to deal with a serious threat, exactly as it should.
But when this threat has passed - and we hope it will do so quickly - we need Governments around the world to learn from their experience and apply it other significant dangers to our health.
Something in the air
The issue of air pollution has only just started to gain traction in Westminster’s hallowed halls. This, despite the fact that a study in the journal Cardiovascular Research estimates that air pollution causes 8.8 million premature deaths annually worldwide.
Think about that - 8.8 million people will die this year because of the air they are breathing (possibly 60,000 of them in the UK alone), but the Prime Minister hasn’t held a Cobra meeting to deal with the poison we’re inhaling every day.
Not our problem…?
Not only that, the Government is reluctant to heed the warning from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which said in its recent report The Inside Story: health effects of indoor air quality on children and young people: “urgent action is needed to address the problems of poor indoor air quality. Children are potentially being exposed to harmful levels of pollutants throughout their daily lives in the buildings where they live, play and learn.”
These pollutants - for example, from building materials (almost entirely ignored by the Government even as it claims building houses is a top priority), cleaning products, toiletries, furnishings, damp, mould, cooking, wood burners and candles - cause serious respiratory illnesses, like asthma, a lifelong condition. Indoor air pollution will also cause 9,000 deaths this year alone in the UK.
Despite the real danger to human life, the Government published its Environment Act without any reference to indoor air quality (IAQ), claiming the natural environment does not include buildings or other structures. Fair enough. But the natural environment does include air. Air doesn’t change into another substance when it flows through a window. It’s still air - part of the natural environment… even when it’s inside.
An amendment has been tabled by 31 MPs (none are Conservatives) recommending IAQ be added to the bill. But even this good news was tainted by their cautious insistence on adding the clause, ‘in particular in relation to schools, hospitals and public buildings,’ to limit the Government’s authority on the issue.
So, Government says what you breathe inside is your business - even if it’s making you sick and costing the NHS billions. Some MPs are saying we can try to clean up the polluted air in public buildings, but to the millions of people living in homes suffering ‘Sick Home Syndrome’ you’re on your own.
It’s the Economy, Stupid!
The Government is clearly worried about COVID-19’s impact on the economy. The market swings lately put Alton Towers to shame. The prospect of millions of workers home sick or self-isolating does not bode well for this year's GDP. No one knows yet what the cost of this illness will be.
What we do know, and yet, seem unwilling to tackle is the cost of leaving people in poor housing, which the Building Research Establishment (BRE) has conservatively estimated at £18.3 billion a year. Money that the NHS largely pays by way of treating patients harmed by their homes.
Imagine if Government instead invested £18.3 billion into updating our existing houses - fixing hazards, keeping them warm and well ventilated, moving them towards climate-friendly technology. What a better way to spend money than forcing the NHS to deal with the same problems year after year after year.
Until Government acts
We applaud the Government - and especially the NHS - for preparing itself to handle this immediate crisis. Our country’s medical professionals are first rate and will rise to the challenge.
We hope that this experience will show our leaders what they can achieve when they take a problem seriously and decide to act. We hope they will see that the environmental threats we face from air pollution also pose a significant danger to the public’s health - and cost tens of thousands of lives every year. We hope Government will act now with the same focus and determination to solve that problem and protect the people who are relying on them.
Meanwhile, we can all help by doing what we can to prevent illnesses and thereby limit our need to access NHS services.
- Visit the NHS website for detailed information
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds often throughout the day and don’t touch your face
- Stay at least a metre away from others who may be ill.
- If you don’t feel well, stay home.
And to help protect yourself from indoor air pollution:
- Ventilate as often as possible (open the windows, use extractor fans for ten minutes after cooking or showering);
- use natural cleaning products, toiletries and low-VOC paints and adhesives;
- never use air fresheners;
- choose beeswax or soy candles;
- vacuum and dust regularly;
- and have your home air tested.