What’s Your Poison?

Why do we put up with daily assaults on our health? It has everything to do with corporate power.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 22nd September 2023

There are some things we rightly find intolerable, such as the possession of poorly trained, aggressive dogs. There are other things, whose impacts are many thousands of times worse, that we decide just to live with. What makes the difference? Visibility is one reason: a photo of a large dog with bared teeth triggers primal fear. Ubiquity is another: the more widespread the problem, the more we normalise it. Split incentives is another: what if we are simultaneously both perpetrators and victims? But I think the most important factor is lobbying power.

There is no corporate lobby behind the sale, let alone poor training, of American XL bullies. But there are powerful corporate lobbies behind the air pollution devastating many people’s health. Oil corporations don’t want to lose their market. Car firms want to sell existing designs for as long as possible. Even the manufacturers of wood-burning stoves run a small, but surprisingly effective, persuasion operation.

Thanks to the Pollution Paradox – the dirtiest industries have the greatest incentive to invest in politics, so politics comes to be dominated by the dirtiest industries – such lobbies exert a vast impact on political choice. If people were asked to vote on whether they want their hearts and lungs damaged, their children’s cognitive development impaired, extra cancers, more stillbirths, a higher risk of dementia and earlier death, they’d be likely to reject these options. But, thanks to decades of spin, the stark nature of the choice has been obscured.

The interests of some of the most powerful industries on Earth are represented as the interests of the working man and woman, trying to go about their business while greens and bureaucrats impede them. In reality, those who drive for their living – such as taxi drivers, couriers and rubbish collectors – have the greatest exposure to toxic diesel fumes. We could achieve cheaper, more effective mobility with a fraction of the pollution. With the right incentives, we could also heat our homes without poisoning our neighbours.

If you don’t have the evidence required to win an argument, there’s a ready alternative: set people against each other by stoking a culture war. Low emission zones and low-traffic neighbourhoods have been the subjects of grotesque falsehoods in the media, lurid conspiracy theories and dark money lobbying. As the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, pointed out this week, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent on troll farms on social media attacking London’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez). We don’t know where this money came from, but it may have been decisive in securing a Conservative win in the Uxbridge byelection.

Emboldened by the apparent success of such lobbying, the government is waging war on public health, announcing a “review” of low-traffic neighbourhoods and scrapping the commitment to stop the sale of polluting private vehicles by 2030. Across both the billionaire press and social media, those who seek cleaner air are demonised. Tory MPs who have called for severe penalties against environmental protesters are noticeably more relaxed about the the vandalism of Ulez cameras. It scarcely gets more perverse.

The Guardian’s mapping of air pollution in Europe (including the UK) tells a shocking story. Only 2% of people live in places where the pollution caused by PM2.5s – tiny particles that cause a wide range of diseases – is within the limits recommended by the World Health Organization. Most people, including millions in the UK, are exposed to toxic particles at concentrations of at least twice this level. You would have to move to northern Scotland to escape the daily assault on your health.

Many rural people will be surprised to see how polluted their air is, but that’s because the media seldom mention the major source of these particles: ammonia from farms. A study by researchers at University College London found that even in cities, ammonia from farms produces more particulate pollution than the cities themselves do. Farm ammonia contributes 25% of the PM2.5s in London, 32% in Birmingham and 38% in Leicester, while these cities generate from 13-24% of their own PM2.5 pollution (the rest blows in from mainland Europe or comes from construction and road traffic outside the city, shipping emissions and dust from distant deserts).

Where there is public silence, lobbyists rule. The ammonia comes from livestock farms and the manure and fertiliser spread on fields. There are several ways of greatly reducing its release: storing manure in sealed tanks rather than open lagoons, injecting it into soil instead of spreading it, banning the use of urea as a fertiliser, reducing the animal products we eat. According to a paper in the journal Science, cutting ammonia pollution is 10 times more cost-effective than cutting nitrous oxide pollution, another major cause of airborne particulates. Halving ammonia emissions, another analysis suggests, could save 3,000 lives in the UK every year. Reducing ammonia, according to Andrea Pozzer of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, is the “most effective way to reduce mortality linked to air pollution”.

But the government, lobbied by the National Farmers’ Union, has thwarted all such efforts. In a submission to parliament, the NFU appeared to admit that the purpose of much manure spreading is to dump surplus slurry rather than to fertilise crops: it needs to happen because “the production or import of manures far outstrips the immediate need of accessible soil and crops”. This is the issue that blights our rivers as well as our air: livestock farms produce far more manure than the land can absorb. The lobby group went on to argue against a ban on autumn spreading, which causes the worst pollution, and against a ban on the use of urea, a potent source of ammonia. The government gave it everything it wanted.

The European parliament has now voted to bring EU legislation in line with the science, setting the WHO’s recommended level as the legal limit for PM2.5 pollution, but, thanks to the lobbyists and their stooges, not until 2035. There are, however, no such plans in the UK. As one of the great benefits of Brexit, the government merely aims to change the current “guidance” level of PM2.5 pollution from four times the WHO recommendation to twice the recommended level by 2040. The dates 2040 and 2050 are used by this government as synonyms for “never”.

The idea that some people may freely poison others is one of the most astonishing but least contested aspects of modern life. It’s time we saw past the lies and the culture wars. It’s time to stop accepting our daily poisoning on behalf of corporate profits.