The city in which I live has a number of roads that are regularly above the legally allowed yearly average level of nitrogen dioxide permitted (40ug/m3). One road is almost double that limit (77ug/m3) and another is 50% over (62ug/m3). The levels have been similar for many years with only small reductions.

The large number of double decker buses are a major cause of this pollution but we have been told they will not be going electric anytime soon. The large number of cars is another. The number of heating units in this densely populated city is another. The council has not provided any reasonable solution for this and has made the situation worse in some locations by building housing in illegally polluted areas in a way that will inhibit pollution dispersal.

This is a long standing issue and it seems no realistic solutions have been mentioned. The poor air quality is leading to poor health and early death.

I want my council to take the situation seriously. I am considering an official question to my council and am about to ask them to declare the city a 'human made environmental disaster'. Would this declaration be appropriate? Is it an exageration of the situation?

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    $\begingroup$ Since NOx pollution can clear out in a day... I don't think you can call it an environmental disaster. Also, are you sure the units are ug/m3? Seems like a really low standard if so. And, your country/city would be useful for context. $\endgroup$
    – f.thorpe
    Jun 3 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ Higher levels of exhaust gasses are to be expected along routes with high usage of vehicles. The gasses do disperse & concentrations decrease with distance from the routes. The degree to which the happens depends on individual circumstances of each location: wind direction, wind speed, channeling or blocking effects of local topographic or buildings, rain. Unless the city is very small with a large number of heavy trafficked roads I doubt the concentration of gasses will be uniform throughout. You may need to support your claims with health impact statements. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Jun 3 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ yes, 40µg/m3, @farrenthorpe but that is an annual average...at that level you could get an hour average of say 160µg/m3. In the COMEAP reports that use NO2 as a marker for all pollutants a 60µg/m3 at someone's home will equate to between 1 & 1.5 years of lost life on average $\endgroup$
    – atreeon
    Jun 3 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Fred the 60µg/m3 level of NO2 will be present at a home. The location does have very heavy traffic - both in number of vehicles and weight as it is the main bus route. Possibly those areas that have been very stubborn in reducing their pollution levels should be declared as an environmental disaster? The problem with the buildings in this area is that they are configured to contain the pollution due to street canyons and enclosed tall buildings $\endgroup$
    – atreeon
    Jun 3 at 16:43

I think there is a bit to unpack in your question, starting with the definition of terms. Just starting off with the title question, yes - examples include the 1948 Donora Smog event, and the 2006 Delhi Smog event. The use of the word disaster is usually reserved for catastrophes, not exceedances.

There are a couple of problems with just claiming that something is an environmental disaster. For one, there is the political problem. Claiming that the city is an environmental disaster could be a concession of defeat. This also could ward off prospective inhabitants or cause the diversion of other funds. The double decker buses are also public transit, and may produce less pollution as compared to individual cars.

There is also a siting issue. Usually those regulations are applied to sites that are representative of the area at large. The distance from the source is an important consideration when looking at measurements of atmospheric chemicals. Individual sites may exceed the limit, but does the average of the sites exceed the limit? There is also a question of by what extent is the limit exceeded or why is the limit exceeded? Is it exceeded for an hourly limit, 24 hour averaged limit, or an 8-hour average limit? Sometimes, it is not unheard of to exceed the limit, but the people who set these limits set them more as goals- goals that keep getting pushed back as more places achieve them. When was the limit last changed?

Here are a few questions that you might want to be prepared to answer if you bring this issue to council, based on how this question is phrased:

  • How many people have died as a result of inaction? What evidence do you have of this increase in premature death? This is probably the biggest gauge for yourself whether or not this issue is exaggerated.
  • Why does your governmental environmental agency seem less concerned than you are? Presumably, your governmental environmental agency's job is to monitor and reduce pollution. If your city council isn't being pushed by the governmental agency, perhaps there is more at work than what is being let on. Perhaps there is corruption, or perhaps the council's hands are tied.
  • What reasonable solutions do you propose? And what public funds should be diverted to pay for those solutions? It is good to be idealistic, but every thing comes with a cost. Are people willing to pay that cost?
  • Have you consulted an engineer to identify alternative structures that could provide for a similar number of housing units for a similar price? Usually the places built in areas with high pollution are more affordable, and the shape of the structures are meant to accommodate more people. Are you willing to be accused of promoting gentrification?
  • How much does the pollution vary due to factors outside of the control of the city? Is the pollution being reported consistently, or is it heavily dependent on anomalous traffic patterns (holidays, sporting events) and weather?
  • $\begingroup$ On a side note, you may want to see what sort of shape your city's regulations on catalytic converters are in, and whether or not the catalytic converters on the city buses are operating optimally. $\endgroup$ Jun 3 at 19:33
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. It has got me thinking more deeply about the subject which is excellent but I might not call it an answer. You say that disasters are catastrophes but lewisu.edu/experts/wordpress/index.php/… suggests they are different. You say there is a political problem of claiming an environmental disaster but I'd say it is the opposite, if you declare a disaster you highlight the seriousness of the situation. 'How many people have died as a result of inaction?' - I agree, this is the most important question $\endgroup$
    – atreeon
    Jun 3 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ Possibly I should ask a new question asking what is the difference between disaster, crisis, incident, emergency and catastrophe and when is it appropriate to use each one. Possibly there are various uses and there is no particular definition but we could compare it with other declarations (covid, rail accidents, earthquakes). It shouldn't just take into account deaths but also life years lost, quality of life and other markers for well being. Otherwise the flu would be declared a catastrophe every year and a rail crash would be defined as an incident maybe. $\endgroup$
    – atreeon
    Jun 3 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ 'does the average of the sites exceed the limit' - yes, there is a tool and the limit is exceeded by 40% in one location at least (the monitor is directly in front of a home) the legal limits in the UK are only hourly & annual - the hourly is usually calculated from the annual data as a rough estimate & likelihood. The limits have been breached in many areas for 20 years - a rough estimate I'd say 1km2 but possibly that has reduced over the last 7 or 8 years from 2km2, but the worst locations haven't improved much. I can calculate the estimated mortality (but is difficult) $\endgroup$
    – atreeon
    Jun 3 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ 'why is my council less concerned than me' - money, acceptance over time, lack of understanding 'solutions': replace buses with trams, charge cars a fee, ban wood & coal burning, don't build new homes in polluted areas, promote active travel 'alternative structures considered': there are plenty of alternative locations 'gentrification': ha! I don't think guarding against air that is killing people on average by 1.5 years earlier can be labelled as gentrification, it is currently the definition of health inequality 'how is pollution reported': only annual levels, no hourly available $\endgroup$
    – atreeon
    Jun 3 at 20:33

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