Oh to be in England

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If you’ve recently been having trouble breathing and can’t even reach out for your inhaler without breaking into a cold sweat, don’t worry, it’s not just you.

The good news is that it’s probably not even your fault: the bad news is that it is getting worse and is killing thousands of people across Britain every year.

This morning, as I walked around the Clifton Triangle, I should have smelt the fresh blooms of spring, the crisp taste of mist as the early sun burns away the dew, the perfume of cool morning air as the birds rustle life from new leaves and sing their accompanying melodies. But where are the chaffinches now?

Instead all I could breathe was oily diesel, pungent gas and noxious fumes. The smell in my lungs was of death, caught in my throat and eyes, like gas in a trench. An ugly filthy smear on windows that should have sparkled in the early sunshine.

Every year 300 people die in Bristol as a direct result of air pollution and across the country, according to the Royal College of Physicians, it is linked to 40,000 annual premature deaths. For young people traffic accidents are the biggest cause of death, then, as we get older, the effect of traffic becomes more insidious.

Air pollution kills twenty times more people than road traffic collisions and is behind only smoking and heart disease as a leading cause of death.

First Bus, a major sponsor of Bristol’s year as European Green Capital, last year invested £13m to purchase 59 buses with “Euro 6” engines, 14 times cleaner than those they replaced. Not all transport operators are as responsible – and it’s often car drivers, saving money with infrequent servicing or wasting money with ostentatious 4×4 melon-flowers, who are most to blame.

A Wessex bus noisily accelerates around the Triangle and a heavy cloud of poison engulfs a group beside the bus stop.

It’s almost impossible to imagine, but one day the Triangle will be free of this filth. One day, if Donald Trump doesn’t destroy us all first, we might even get rid of cars altogether. Just imagine what it will be like: just imagine what those future Bristolians will say about us. Their history books will describe us with the horror we use to describe the squalor of the Middle Ages. Gutters full of human effluent were at least more natural than the cocktail of chemicals that surreptitiously snake their way to the bottom of your lungs.

It won’t be terrorism in early 21st Century Britain that history recalls; it will be the unrelenting poisoned air, the accidents and the din of morbid traffic.