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OPINION - Air pollution on the Tube could be our next crisis

Sadiq Khan has battled to reduce pollution on the roads, but now there must be a new fight below (PA)
Sadiq Khan has battled to reduce pollution on the roads, but now there must be a new fight below (PA)

Have you ever touched the air vents behind the seats on the Central line? I made that mistake at the weekend and I won’t be repeating it.

As I spread my arms along the grille, desperately trying to cool down inside the nauseating hot carriages, a chequered pattern of black soot appeared all over my palms. Scrubbing away at it with a dollop of hand sanitiser, the thought occurred: if that’s coming out of the vents, what’s going into my lungs?

Last year, a Cambridge study found the Tube is teeming with ultrafine metallic particles small enough to end up in the human bloodstream, too tiny to be captured by typical methods of pollution monitoring. The researchers stopped short of pronouncing on how bad this is for our health, but multiple studies before it had already found that air pollution levels on the Tube were well above the World Health Organisation’s defined limits. This should be of real concern.

The thought occurred: if that’s coming out of the vents, what’s going into my lungs?

The watershed moment for London’s fight on road pollution came when a court case found a girl’s life was cut short by toxic fumes on our streets. Suppose a similar case were brought, but this time it found a healthy life was shortened by using the Tube. The consequences would be disastrous. In a worst-case scenario, entire sections of lines could be shut until air quality was demonstrably improved, and even in the best-case, swathes of commuters could be put off travelling into work, crippling Transport for London’s finances.

Now the expanded Ulez is up and running, it’s time to shift our focus from the quality of air above ground to that below. There’s an imbalance in our public discourse on pollution, given that far more Londoners take the Underground to work compared with driving. Ironically, if Mayor Sadiq Khan’s war on motorists succeeds in bringing down road pollution, it could even end up being healthier to drive to work rather than take a train.

Our Mayor has a bold vision to remove toxic air from our streets. Before the next election, he should also lay out concrete targets to cut fumes from our Tubes.

Simon Hunt is Business and Technology correspondent