IBM says that Canterbury’s air quality is good — but it’s not

The air quality in Canterbury is always “Good”. That is what my smartphone tells me every day. Through an IBM subsidiary,, it also gives me a numerical measure — and this is nearly always top of the class (1) although occasionally it slips to 3. By contrast, when I was in Germany in the Spring readings were usually around the 50 mark, and described as ‘Medium’.

But when I do my own research
in Canterbury I get a different answer. I have one friend who splits her time
between here and a village on the coast in Fife. She breathes well in Scotland
but her asthma often returns after a couple of days spent in Canterbury. She is
not alone. Retired St Stephen’s GP David Pratt noticed a similar kind of
pattern amongst the people he treated back in the 1990s. He began to speak out
publicly about air quality over 20 years ago. The reason, he explained to me
recently, was that he had “become concerned at the demonstrable and recorded
deterioration in respiratory function in our asthmatic patients with time as
the traffic increased through St. Stephen’s to Canterbury”.

And then I spoke to our world
expert based down the road — Stephen Peckham, Director of the Centre for Health
Services Studies, at the University of Kent. Professor Peckham runs three air
quality monitoring machines in our district (two in Canterbury, one in
Whitstable). He does not describe our air quality as “Good”. And he is
particularly concerned at the effect on younger generations. He told me:
“Children are exposed to poor air quality throughout the centre of Canterbury.
This means they will have smaller, less effective lungs as adults.”

Research by Queen Mary,
University of London among 2,000 eight- and nine-year olds in four London
boroughs has shown that they typically have “a loss of 5 per cent in
lung capacity”. Research from California found that there are five times as many 18-year
olds with a 20 per cent reduced lung capacity in polluted areas. Looking at the
readings from Professor Peckham’s recorders, I find that on the day I looked
(Tuesday, August 6), Nitrogen Oxide emissions (NOx) hit a maximum of 208 in St
Stephen’s that morning — five times the legal level.*

The problem here is that most
people do not know how to understand these readings (which, by the way, measure
the presence of these pollutants in millionths). But the Canterbury results are
troubling. The
government sets the annual average annual legal threshold at 40 — but this
includes the night time when levels are close to zero. Research is increasingly
suggesting that children’s lungs are permanently damaged at levels of 10 and

authorities have a legal duty to respond when NOx levels exceed the
government’s legal threshold. But they do not have to take action over PMs and
Ozone. (See the note at the bottom of this article for PM and Ozone readings.) On
PM 2.5s there is no known safe level: the World Health Organisation says that
there is “little evidence to suggest a threshold below which no adverse health
effects would be anticipated”. The Queen Mary research points to PMs, alongside
NOx and Nitrogen Dioxide, as being a cause of reduced lung growth.

Ozone affects lung function in higher concentrations. And there is no legal
duty here on councils. Canterbury is one of the few UK locations which
regularly breaches the UK hourly limit (of 180) — because of its high levels of
sunshine and traffic, and its location in a bowl. Daily levels often reach 100,
a level which can produce symptoms for asthmatics and others who are sensitive.

Canterbury is not alone in Kent. Maidstone’s streets are the fifth most polluted outside London, according to a February 2019 survey from Friends of the Earth. Poor air quality is a disease of prosperity. We are poisoning ourselves by our emissions, particularly from diesel vehicles.

So we
need major changes here. We need more measuring gadgets — particularly by roads
where emissions push up NOx levels. We need this information put out on an app
in a format that people can understand so that we can see which streets to
avoid at any given time. We need better public transport at a lower cost to
users. We probably need free public travel, if we are to encourage drivers out
of their cars. And that would mean a reorganisation of public finance including
the introduction of substantial travel grants from central to local government.
If that sounds like the tail wagging the dog, it is not. There is nothing more
important, if you think about it, than ensuring that our children grow large,
healthy lungs.

finally, we need smartphones to get more accurate information. Air quality
stats are not like temperature readings. Temperatures generally remain the same
across broad areas but, as meteorologists know, a reading taken in a park can
be very different to that from a bus stop 100 metres away. In this case, the
monitor is in a leafy area of the old Chaucer Tech on Pilgrims Road which
doubles as a police dog training ground, just opposite King George’s Field. I
went there on Thursday, 8 August at noon. While Ozone on this measure was put
at 40, it was registering over three times that level (133) on Wincheap. The
smartphone was scoring Canterbury at 2 — “Good”.

They say
that no-one ever got fired for hiring IBM. In this case, whoever fires IBM
should be promoted.

  • Other readings (in parts per million): St Stephen’s: The reading for low level ozone was 123 in St Stephens. And the
    small particulates — PM 2.5 — fluctuated between 4 and 15.
  • At St
    , the NOx readings were lower (a maximum of 82) than in St
    Stephen’s. The Ozone reading was higher (between 4 and 161). The  PM 2.5 reading was also higher (between 3 and

Courtesy of Environment – The Canterbury Journal