In the era of Covid, keeping healthy is at the forefront of all of our minds.

As a society, we have become more and more aware of the invisible enemies that stalk us through the air, making sure to wear masks, keep our distance and maintain good hygiene to keep one step ahead of the virus that has affected our lives over the last few months. But what happens when the threat comes not from the air’s contents, but the air itself?

This is the issue with air pollution, where the air we breathe becomes contaminated with gases such as nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and small particles of matter. These compounds can have a variety of impacts on human health, including lung inflammation, triggering asthma, and in a landmark decision made recently, can be a cause of death.

As a result of this, you may believe that air pollution would be a key issue, with action to combat the issue throughout the entirety of Basingstoke. However, according to Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council (BDBC) figures, air pollution is on the rise in some areas.

Under the Environment Act 1995, all local authorities in England are legally required to monitor air quality in their area. BDBC does this by placing 30 diffusion tubes across the borough, where nitrogen dioxide passes through it and is absorbed over a period of weeks, with the absorption later analysed to infer the concentration of the gas in the air.

However, these tubes are not evenly distributed. Eleven lie in Winton Square, on the corner of New Street and Winchester Road. One of these tubes was found to be in breach of the national limit for the annual mean concentration of nitrogen dioxide, 40µg/m3, back in 2015.

While levels then dropped in the following year, levels have since increased, with a concentration of 38.1µg/m3 recorded in 2020. Two other sites in Winton Square also record high nitrogen dioxide concentrations, at 35.7µg/m3 and 34.8µg/m3 respectively.

Residents of Basingstoke have expressed their concern about air pollution, with one Kempshott resident saying that they “very rarely come into town” as a result.

Lucy May, meanwhile, told the Gazette that she will “probably go a different way to work” after hearing about pollution levels in Winton Square.

“It’s something I’m worried about, as I have a little boy,” she said. “I wouldn’t like to live somewhere with bad air quality.”

Concerns have also been raised by environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, which in 2017 took readings from a number of sites in Basingstoke, including some not currently monitored by BDBC.

Their readings suggested that air quality near North Hampshire Hospital and Eastrop Roundabout may exceed national limits, with readings of 42.3µg/m3 and 48.5µg/m3 respectively. However, some of their other findings have given extraordinarily high results which seem anomalous.

Jenny Bates, an air pollution campaigner with Friends of the Earth, told the Gazette that it was “more important than ever” to take action on air pollution during the pandemic.

She said: “Air pollution is bad for everyone, but especially for people already ill so continued monitoring and action is more important than ever given COVID is a respiratory pandemic and more people will have damaged lungs. We also know people who live in areas of very poor air quality seem more at risk from worsened Covid outcomes.”

She called on the council to cut pollution further than legal standards require them to, saying that there were “still health implications at lower levels.”

The placement of these extra monitors by the group, however, does not address a lack of monitoring of other air pollutants, with BDBC monitoring nitrogen dioxide. According to figures from Public Health England, the fraction of mortality attributable to particulate air pollution in Basingstoke and Deane is 5.4 per cent as of 2018.

While these figures are lower than the South East as a whole, at 5.6 per cent, and equivalent to the English average, it still represents a factor in a significant number of deaths that is currently unmonitored at a local level.

This lack of monitoring extends to the M3, where BDBC has no monitoring sites. Highways England, the organisation which oversees road in the UK, had been undertaking studies on air pollution along roads, including the M3, but ended up only using half of its budget for this, “despite putting in significant effort.”

As a result, Highways England has “moved its focus to reducing emissions at source,” with an upcoming review in 2021 set to announce if the M3, and other roads, will need pollution mitigation steps to be taken – such as cutting speed limits.

This is what was proposed for the section of Ringway East between Black Dam Roundabout and the A33 roundabout in 2018, when it was identified that this section of road was exceeding nitrogen dioxide limits. A cut to 50mph was proposed to cut emissions to below levels. In 2019, however, levels were found to be below legal limits, so the plans were not put into place.

BDBC’s cabinet member for environment and enforcement, Councillor Hayley Eachus, attributed this to initiatives by the council such as the opening of a dedicated electric vehicle charging hub and an anti-engine idling campaign.

She said: “The council is working hard to maintain good air quality in the borough. This is an important part of the councils emerging Climate Change and Air Quality Strategy which sits at the heart of the 2020-2024 council plan following our climate emergency declaration in 2019.

“Winton Square is the location where levels have been highest, however the distance corrected and adjusted data falls well below 40 µg/m3.

“DEFRA recently reviewed the council’s recent Annual Status Report 2020 and credited the initiatives in place to improve AQ in the borough, despite the borough not having any areas which do not already meet national standards.”