Why asthma makes me so angry

It's mum who wants to make a fuss about life not being fair for Nell,10.

This blog post is by Nicola Baird sharing ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children. This post is a rage against the machine, for anyone who knows someone with asthma – or someone who won’t drive their car a bit less. For more info about my book Homemade Kids, with lots of  (much calmer) ideas about parenting, click here

From the Islington Tribune (25 November 2011, actual story here)
On Monday, Islington’s Green ­Party will reveal the full results of a survey it carried out along the A101 – Blackstock Road, Highbury Road and Highbury Grove – which showed that everyday pollution levels are 25 per cent higher than the EU safe ­limit, and in hotspots such as around ­Highbury Barn they are 75 per cent higher.

Readings at child height – as reported in the Tribune two weeks ago – are even worse.

I’m raging against the machine today. I’ve been an environmental campaigner for years. I even spent a decade working with Friends of the Earth, where we were taught if campaigners wanted to make the world a better place, then you better never get angry. If you want to win hearts and minds, then you need to be calm. Look your enemy in the eye, and answer rationally. Listen, laugh if you need to. But don’t get cross. Sometimes I wished I could get cross.

Well, that’s all changed now.

I’m furious about the air quality outside my house. Every single road I use. Every road you and I use is the same. Do you realise that pollution levels are 25 per cent higher try than the EU safe level on Blackstock Road, Highbury Road and Highbury Grove? Have you understood that it’s75 per cent higher at Highbury Barn? What does this mean – that I’m exposing my asthmatic 10 year old to the equivalent of smoking a packet of fags a day? Or is it worse than that?

That’s the same child that I worry about eating five veg a day, getting enough sleep at night, avoiding too much TV or sweets, or getting into the right school.

Asthma triggers are all sorts – perfume, cats, cold weather.  You can kind of avoid those.

I know carpets are a problem, the build up of chemicals indoors. So I’ve got smooth floors and windows that open.

But what if the asthma trigger is the actual air you breathe? What the heck can you do then? Does my child need a bubble helmet and a particle shield to be able to safely breathe?

Do you know how many people have asthma in London? Or Islington? Or your street?

I bet everyone knows a family who has been plagued by asthma. The stats say one in five children carry an asthma inhaler.

  • My daughter Nell needs a steroid dose to help her breathe – to stop her airways constricting and killing her. She needs it when she wakes up and when she goes to bed.
  • She’s probably going to be shorter.
  • She’s not going to be in the school sports teams.
  • Sometimes her asthma is so difficult to control she can’t actually talk very well. Silence = an asthma attack.
  • She was born in Islington.
  • She isn’t going to grow out of this.

Nell’s unlucky. But she’s not unique: 5.4million people in the UK are receiving treatment for asthma. That’s a big number. Only about 200,000 of us live in Islington – so that’s 27 Islingtons of people who can’t breathe too well.

Doctors don’t really know why asthma levels have exploded – but that’s because doctors will do anything not to blame something. Why is it that when you go into hospital with a dodgy heart and you die an autopsy goes ahead? Wasn’t the death kind of obvious?

Half of London’s pollution comes from transport. Doesn’t that say something screamingly obvious? If doctors just spelt out the obvious – and said look this level of air pollutants is crazy.  Imagine the doctors saying: “We are killing our youngest, most vulnerable people just because someone like their mum wants to drive to school or the shops.” Wouldn’t it help us all rethink how we get around Islington?

I don’t smoke because it’s expensive. And because I believe the doctors when they say it gives you cancer and heart and lung disease. Why can’t doctors be a bit braver and go on record. Why can’t they say to drivers that driving is cutting this child Nell’s life short just because someone wants to save a bit of time today, or hang outside the school gates with their engine running?

Why are we all being so well-behaved? We’re murdering our neighbours’ children, and our own children just because we will not get out of our cars, and Christmas is coming, so it’s all a bit difficult…

Every time you drive it’s making my child’s lung capacity – and her friends – another notch worse.

Now if I wasn’t being angry I’d say put your heavy goods into a bike basket, or a pannier or get a push along trolley. My family now has two trolleys we find it so useful. Use a buggy if you must. Or a wheelbarrow.

Instead I’m going to add a few particulates to the mix. If I ever see anyone sitting in a car with the engine running I’m going to wolf howl with despair. How can we do this to other people, let alone to our own families?

This study by Islington’s Green party has given us the figures everyone else wanted to hide. A bunch of mums and dads went out with a wet wipe and a few particulate readers. A few weeks later they came back with a shocking story. The soupy air quality on the roads we all use is likely to cut our life – my life – short by 11 years. Nell hasn’t even lived that long yet.

No wonder I’m angry. As they say in that famous Chinese proverb – be careful what you wish for.

Thank you to Islington’s Green party. For more details about the survey see at http://highburyonfoot.blogspot.com/

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11 Comments on “Why asthma makes me so angry”


  1. Nicola this is a very powerful piece. Like you I’m raging. This is so important and we have to change it. It is a fairness issue and Islington children deserve better.

  2. Karin Says:

    That is dreadful, Nicola. It makes me feel I shouldn’t use my car, and in an ideal world I wouldn’t, but our lifestyles and infrastructures are set up in such a way that we are dependent on them, especially if we don’t live in a big town where everything is close at hand.

    It would have taken a long time to catch two buses to the hospital yesterday and I need the car for heavy shopping as I can’t carry a lot these days. When I visit my parents it’s so helpful to be able to take them to the shops or to visit my aunt as my dad shouldn’t really be driving and Mum can’t carry a lot. Your post may encourage me to think a bit more before I use it for short journeys when I don’t need to carry heavy things, though – I just need to plan better.

    I didn’t use the car at all today, though.

    • homemadekids Says:

      Karin, did you ever see my book “The Estate We’re In: who’s driving car culture”? Taking this to a more trivial level – planning is key to using cars less (hence the shopping trolley we use at our home for heavy shopping), but as you say a lot of infrastructure is totally car orientated. If only i could laugh at the rows going on with Westminster Council’s on off debate about whether they should charge more (or at all) for off peak parking. Nicola x

      • Karin Says:

        Hi Nicola, just thought I’d tell you that I’ve just ordered your book. I hadn’t read it and it is now out of print, but I found a second hand copy on Amazon. I shan’t be lugging a shopping trolley up my hill, though, but hopefully you have some tips that might work for me. I’ll try to find time to read it during December.

    • Justin Bere Says:

      Unless one is physically disabled, or frail, I believe there are very few reasons left to drive a car that someone in 30 years time will look back and consider to have been valid reasons for this anti-social practice. Most people can walk or cycle to local shops and weekly markets. Nobody ‘needs’ to drive to a supermarket. They just want to do so. If they sold the car, they could support their local community shops and markets and still have money left over. On other occasions a taxi or zipcar will suffice and be cheaper than the car with its insurance, fuel, tax, annual maintenance costs etc – and there will be no parking fees. People are dependent on cars in the same way that others are dependent on drugs. Car dependency is no better than drug dependency because car pollution destroys the lives of others. Now we know the health and environmental consequences, we have to ween ourselves off this drug. No excuses.
      See http://www.bere.co.uk/blog/clean-air-inside-passivhaus-relieves-symptoms-chronic-lung-disease-after-only-four-weeks (and yes, ironically that is a car on their drive, but Tom cannot walk far, due to his chronic lung disease caused by vehicle pollution)

      • homemadekids Says:

        Thanks for this Justin. It’s a strong set of views, but I’m with you. Nicola

      • Karin Says:

        Justin, I’m afraid this sort of statement is what puts people off ‘greens’. It shows no understanding of how other people have to live. Many people have to travel a long way to work these days and public transport is not adequate to get them to work. Perhaps you are suggesting that we all move to big cities? Apart from the fact that some of us don’t enjoy living in large towns, what would that do to our environment?

        I’d love it if better public transport made it easier to get around without a car, but the reason I learned to drive in the first place was because of the inconvenience and isolation that ensued from being car-less.

        I support my local shops, but very few of them sell food, which is why I use the supermarket as well as a veg box delivery service. I’d also need to drive further if I didn’t. For many people the cost is also a factor.

        I understand why you feel strongly, Nicola. I used to worry when I pushed my baby son across a bridge of slow moving traffic full of exhaust fumes and it hasn’t obviously done him any harm – he’s over 6 foot and seems pretty healthy. If he had developed asthma I would have worried even more, but we need more far-reaching changes before many individuals can change their lifestyles. I feel it has become a trap that it is hard to get out of.

  3. homemadekids Says:

    From Facebook:
    Penny: Yes, Alma also is a sufferer. And mine is really bad these days.

    Annie: This is a very moving piece, Nicola — you’re giving Mama Tiger a voice in the discussion.

    • nicola baird Says:

      Bit more from Facebook:
      Anne: Thanks for being angry. Made me share your blog! My daughter has asthma too. Mild, doesn’t struggle as much as Nell but she has been brought up surrounded by fish and coconuts so not sure what did it for her!!


  4. As long as air pollution proceeds in highly populated areas the asthma rates will also rise along with it. Sometihng should really be done.

  5. Karin Says:

    Are you aware of this campaign, Nicola? http://www.jennyforlondon.org/dirtyboris/
    I wonder what you think about it.


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