Is London Killing You? How To Avoid Deadly Air Pollution

By Phil Clarke, Editor of The Handbook website Phil Clarke |
14th January 2020

Last year London hit its legal air pollution limit FOR THE YEAR by March, and this year it’s looking like the capital might be able to beat it’s personal best. Which is really bad news for us Londoners. We’re less than a month into 2020 and we’ve already breathed in what’s regarded as the maximum safe amount for a whole four months. According to researchers, a normal day’s exposure in the capital is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes, albeit significantly cheaper and without the faff of popping outside to the fire escape every half hour, so it’s clear that something needs to change.

Government efforts to kerb the level of toxic gasses beltching into Londoners’ faces would have us doubled up laughing if we weren’t already doubled-over choking. It’s a black day for Londoners, though perhaps not as black as our bogeys. But there are changes you can make to reduce your personal exposure to pollution, so The Handbook collected up 10 top tips for tip top pollution avoidance.

Quitting isn’t for losers

If you’re a smoker and clicked on this link then I’m afraid you’re going to have to deal with your own personal Union Carbide plant, pumping your body full of chemicals, before you proceed to point 2. But you knew that anyway.

The road less travelled

Air pollution builds up along the route of main roads (ie where the cars are, durrr), and where the traffic jams are. Walking through this invisible smog of toxic gasses, NOx emissions and dangerous PM 10 and PM2.5 dioxides is not only damaging your health, but is also generally avoidable.

Instead of walking down the main road, pop onto the parallel side-street. Of course, maybe this makes you more likely to be mugged at knife-point, y’know, swings and roundabouts, but the air will be significantly cleaner.

School run nightmares

The worst offenders are stationary cars, standing in traffic and leaching out their noxious gasses; the yummy mummies in their road-legal armoured vehicles, casually poisoning their children’s more health-conscious class mates walking on the pavement alongside. Avoid these urban tractors at all costs and flee the thoughtless tw*ts who sit with their engines idling for no reason.

Mask the smell

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Japan has a disproportionate number of off-duty surgeons wandering about, surgical masks still in-situ. In fact it’s just a population super-aware of the effects of pollution. But ill-informed when it comes to the effectiveness of their face-wear.

Medical opinions are divided, but it’s thought that flimsy surgical, or those painter/decorator, masks aren’t going to cut it against air pollution, they’ll stop dust but that’s about it. You need to, at the very least, invest in something with filters in it. These tight fitting masks, often worn by cyclists, aren’t massively flattering or especially practical and will leave you looking like Shredder from the Turtles, but you will be protected from the worst of the pollution.

The bottom line is that without leaving the house prepared for an Ebola outbreak cleanup sesh or Breaking Bad levels of meth-lab clean-freakery then you’re not going to keep everything out of the system, but even a little will go a long way.

Stay appy

When in doubt, turn to tech (unless you’re fighting Darleks, in which case turn to stairs). And thankfully help is on hand thanks to Kings College London, who run The London Air Quality Network. With pollution monitors across London, hourly data is collected and can be viewed via the free app London Air.

Providing relatively live information, the app is ideal for checking pollution levels at any given time and in and around your home, place of work or on your commute.

Another, more practical option, is the City Air App. You simply pop your destination into the app and it will give you a route that is the least congested to walk to your given destination. Genius.

Don’t exercise… at peak times

I’ve been operating a ‘don’t exercise’ policy for the best part of a decade, but if I was to go running at rush hour then I really would be risking my health. Exercise means that we’re (well ‘you’re’, I’ll be at home on the sofa watching The Good Place), breathing far more heavily, allowing the toxins to circulate more freely and exposing ourselves to harmful doses of pollution.

Chemical bothers

I write this as our office cleaners fuss around my feet with a mop dipped in what can only be unconcentrated bleach. Many of us are unwittingly poisoning ourselves, our families and pets, through the use of deadly chemicals. For instance, mold and mildew cleaners generally contain not only sodium hypochlorite, which is awful for your lungs, but also formaldehyde which is a known carcinogen. Most air fresheners work by disabling your sense of smell with an oil film or a ‘nerve-deadening agent’. Plus formaldehyde, again, and the highly toxic phenol. And so on and so on. One way to combat these is to use only organic cleaning agents, the other is to just open the windows! The key here is being aware. Inventions like the Foobot will allow you to monitor how many harmful particulates are in the atmosphere.

Plant hire

Plants significantly cut down on pollution. That’s why we have rainforests. Getting a few plants in the house or letting that hedge grow a bit, can make a small difference to pollution levels around your home. Aloe vera is, apparently, especially good at providing a living air filter in your home.

Grand urban canyons

Tall buildings are all the rage, popping up to Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie or Duck & Waffle at Heron Tower is pretty much second nature. But with both these buildings lining Bishopsgate we also see the perfect example of an urban canyon, stretching from Shoreditch to London Bridge, trapping air and vehicle pollution, at the base. Walking to work along such canyons can be nearly as perilous as that guy in 127 Hours.

It’s an uphill struggle

Remember that advice about always facing on-coming traffic? Ignore it and do the absolute opposite. Car engines strain as they climb a hill, leaving a trail of exhaust fumes behind them. Much better to choose the footpath on the downward side, where the cars coast past without taxing the engine whatsoever. Take that, Highway Code!

Get your kit off!

Of course, when you get into the house in the evening, the fibres in your clothes, not to mention your hair and pores, will still be clogged with pollution. So the best advice is to strip down, and head to the showers. Yes it feels a little like being hosed down on day-one in Broadmoor, but you’ll feel the better for it. Also, being in your pyjamas is the perfect excuse not to pop out for last minute humous.

It’s loose aboot your hoose

It’s not just air pollution from roads that’s shortening your life, your house is practically an environmental disaster waiting to happen. Things to consider include, and I know it’s awfully naff, but perhaps you need to become a ‘shoes off’ house? If you can’t stomach the middle-middle-classness of that, at least install a half decent doormat.

Carpets are a great collector of nasties that contribute to indoor air pollution. Consider floorboards if you’re about to replace them, and keep them mopped. Otherwise keep hoovering the hell out of those carpets.

Fires look amazing, but you’re basically being one of those Chinese coal powered power stations, contributing to air pollution outside, but inside too.

And finally consider an air purifier, it should help a little but unless you live in Gwalior, India, you’re not going to be seeing a huge difference.

Be boring – leave London!

Of course, your best move would be to leave London altogether. This city’s taking years off your life, so why not move to a lovely leafy village in Kent or somesuch? But how boring would your life be without the delights of the capital? Hell, you’d have to take up a new hobby. Like smoking…

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