As air pollution today reaches ‘Very High’ levels we ask: does anybody care about Colnbrook’s bad air?
With air pollution at Colnbrook Lakeside today at ‘Very High’, and Colnbrook’s air quality worse than it was six months ago, we ask two pertinent questions: Can the figures be relied on yet? And is policing of air quality taking a backseat to photo-ops and cash for community projects?
Colnbrook’s air quality has worsened over the last six months according to data reported on Slough’s Air Quality Monitoring portal. Today, however, the portal is reporting that Colnbrook’s air pollution is, again, ‘Very High’.
Regular visitors will have been expecting it since rogue poster ‘M. Mouse’ brought air pollution back into the spotlight last Tuesday but with air quality at Colnbrook Lakeside currently at its worst possible level a review of air quality stats for the past six months seems timely … and the situation doesn’t look good.
M. Mouse (a.k.a. ‘Truthloader’, ‘anonymous2’, ‘Lukeskywalker1975’) suggested Colnbrook residents were “basket cases” for their concern at last September’s “blip” in pollution figures at Colnbrook Lakeside 2 monitoring station.
Grundon dismissed that blip as faulty data due to a snapped tape, insisting at the time that air quality at the incinerator was actually “excellent” during the alleged incident. That contradicted the findings from Slough Borough Council.
Today air quality at Colnbrook Lakeside Osiris 2 monitoring station is once again reporting ‘Very High’ – a level that should see a warning to the general population, and those with heart or lung problems advised to reduce activity.
Today’s spike in measurements of PM10 particulate matter is not isolated. After we reported the unprecedented levels recorded on 5 September, further extremes were again seen towards the end of that month and have again been seen in February and March.
Faulty readings or really bad air? It’s too early to say.
Colnbrook’s Cllr James Walsh, Slough Borough Council’s cabinet member for health demanded in September that the Council be kept “better informed about this kind of unusual activity in future so that we can all get a better understanding of what’s going on a lot sooner”. He also called on the company to learn lessons, particularly with regard to the way it communicates with residents.
Colnbrook Views called for a new upper limit alert for residents, particularly those in vulnerable groups.
Neither has happened; residents are still being kept in the dark. ‘M. Mouse’ may be right: it could be another false alarm with no need for concern – and, after all, the Parish Council insists air quality standards required by law are observed as a matter of course.
But as with the recent flooding, today’s incident highlights Colnbrook’s lack of preparedness for emergency situations. After the flooding village groups began discussing how community networks could be used to alert and coordinate assistance. Today shows those steps can’t come soon enough.
Regardless of whether today’s ‘incident’ is real or not, there has clearly no improvement in the quality of the data reported publicly and it is quite apparent that, still, nobody is monitoring the figures reported. Some of the data still hasn’t been ratified after two years, while nearly half the data is missing from one monitoring station.
But who cares? There are big bucks to be had for going easy on the big polluters. Is anybody surprised that the transparency and openness that we might demand as residents come a poor second?
At the May 2012 Parish AGM vice-chair Ray Angell insisted: “we will take money from anyone for good causes … you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Well, Councillor Angell, maybe sometimes you should?Read more
Is it bad air … or bad data?
Let’s deal with the ‘blips’ first: are they real or are they bad data?
Since September’s spike, the two worst measurements of PM10 at 300 µg/m3 in February and 900 µg/m3 occurred just a few weeks ago.
In September, Jason Newman for SBC’s Environmental Quality team said PM10 levels such as the 985 µg/m3 recorded then should not be possible other than directly at the point of discharge. The erroneous data was later deleted.
Slough Borough Council nevertheless confirmed that monitoring stations all over the south east had shown higher than normal readings, disputing Grundon’s statement that air quality was “excellent”.
The widely reported ‘Saraha dust’ over the United Kingdom today could be to blame, but other local monitoring stations are not showing the same readings.
The spikes in September, February and March were echoed at other local monitoring stations, something that was never explained.
Blips aside, what is the current trend?
So what have the air quality stats shown for the last six months, and have they proved less erratic?
5 out of 7 monitoring stations in Slough are based in Colnbrook, between them measuring six pollutants. Three of which, Nitrogen Dioxide, PM2.5 and PM10 particulate matter are governed by the UK Government’s DAQI index while the others are subject only to local authority air quality objectives.
First, the good news. Nitrogen Dioxide levels recorded are ‘low’, with no ‘exceedences’ whatsoever throughout the borough.
However, there were over a dozen occurrences of ‘Very High’ PM10 pollution in the past six months, and the smaller and more dangerous PM2.5 particles also breached acceptable levels on numerous occasions in the past six months. PM1 measurements (which have no local air quality targets) were high.
Here, the data spikes are shared across monitoring stations throughout Colnbrook.
Particulate matter smaller than about 10 micrometers, referred to as PM10, can settle in the bronchi and lungs and cause health problems. PM2.5 can cause a hardening of the arteries that reduces elasticity and can lead to heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems. There is a noticeable upward trend in the PM2.5 levels recorded over the past six months.
But while the extremes may be dismissed as ‘impossible’ the spikes in the three readings of particulate matter all occur at the same time at all monitoring stations.
How reliable are the monitoring stations?
The other noticeable trend is that all monitoring stations continue to report incomplete data capture, with some alarming gaps in data from some stations.
The worst performing monitoring stations have the lowest data collection rates with over 45% of the data missing at Colnbrook Lakeside Osiris, the source of today’s pollution warning.
Are our air standards stringent enough?
New EU Directive 2008/50/EC obliges member states to bring PM2.5 exposure levels below 20 micrograms/m3 by 2015 in urban areas by 2015, with a new much limit of just 25 micrograms/m3 imposed over the year. Mostly that remains unmeasured around Colnbrook.
Officially there have been progressively fewer breaches of air quality objectives in Colnbrook each year since 2011. However, the number of days each year where air quality has been beyond acceptable levels has doubled year on year. In the first three months of this year we have already seen half the number of bad air days for the whole of last year in the 3 worst performing sites.
The new directive further commits member states to reducing exposure to PM2.5 by an average of 20% by 2020 based on 2010 levels. For PM10 Slough currently sets the target at 40 micrograms/m3 in line with the EU compromise (the WHO defines good air as being half this) while it does not record a breach until 50 micrograms/m3 has been breached averaged over a day.
The current system of reporting “exceedences” of daily or yearly averages means air quality targets can still be met. Operators can continue burning even when ambient levels are already high. Current targets allow daily averages to breach acceptable levels 35 times a year. All breaches are treated the same no matter whether 51 micrograms/m are recorded or 150.
Colnbrook Views’ call in September for a new upper limit alert for residents and better safeguards fell on deaf ears. The Parish Council, in determining its position on a second incinerator at Lakeside to be operated by DHL concluded in late September that “it would have to meet the air quality standards required by law and would be fully monitored”. It raised no objection to the application, registered last July, which has still to be determined.