Boris Johnson accused of burying ominous findings in air pollution report

Former London's Mayor Boris Johnson © Suzanne Plunkett
Former London Mayor Boris Johnson has been accused of withholding the findings of a damning report that shows illegal air pollution levels in London impact deprived schools far more than their moneyed counterparts.

Revealed by the Guardian on Monday, the previously unpublished report uncovers how deprived schools across the British capital are disproportionately impacted by toxic air pollution.

Environmental consultancy firm Aether had completed the study – which examined nitrous oxide levels across London – for the Greater London Authority (GLA).

Titled Analysing Air Pollution in London, it was due for release in 2013.

However, the vast majority of its contents were cloaked in secrecy after it was shelved by Johnson’s administration.

The study found almost 25 percent of London-based primary schools were located in regions where European Union (EU) air pollution limits were breached in 2010. It also revealed that an overwhelming 83 percent of the schools forced to contend with excess nitrogen levels were situated in poor areas, whereas over 80 percent with acceptable air pollution levels were situated in rich parts of the city.

The report’s author, Katie King, told the Guardian that City Hall had publicized some of the study’s positive findings on Johnson’s watch, while withholding its negative ones. Newly-elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan subsequently lashed out at Johnson, accusing him of burying the study’s damning data.

While the full study was withheld by Johnson’s administration, some of its less ominous conclusions were made public in July 2015. Among these was a prediction that the number of Londoners forced to inhale unlawfully toxic air would plummet from roughly one million in 2015 to 300,000 in 2020. This positive finding was published in Johnson’s progress report relating to air quality last summer. However, the progress report made no mention of the shelved study’s more sinister findings.

A spokesman for Johnson has defended the outgoing mayor’s legacy on air pollution.

“To suggest Boris Johnson’s administration was somehow trying to hide the extent of London’s air quality issues is risible,” he told the Guardian.

But King, a director at Aether, said her report’s negative findings were cloaked in secrecy while its positive conclusions were made public.

“The crux of the report was about understanding the inequalities of air pollution, so they chose not to make public the findings regarding inequality,” she told the Guardian.

“The information that they did take from the report was the positive, that exposure was predicted to fall in the future.”

A spokesperson for Khan called the report unsettling.

“This shocking report reveals a snapshot of the true impact that our polluted air has on some of London’s most vulnerable communities,” the spokesperson said.

“It is difficult to understand why the last mayoralty decided to cover it up and not fully release it in 2013 - they clearly didn't want Londoners to know the dire state of pollution in the capital. The mayor is fully committed to cleaning up our air and protecting Londoners' health, and is shocked to learn that important scientific evidence like this has been locked and ignored at City Hall.”

Nitrous oxide is a poisonous pollutant commonly emitted from diesel engines. Other sources include fossil fuel combustion in general, wastewater management and industrial landscapes. The toxic gas has been shown to spark respiratory problems and skin irritation, and is estimated to cause thousands of premature deaths across London each year.