Air pollution in the Potteries: worse now, or in the past?

With air pollution from diesel car particulates and smog making headlines, and many people in Stoke still suffering from a lingering hacking cough, I thought I would take a quick look into how all this compares with risk from the past. Autobiographies and heavily retouched postcards often lead us to believe that the smoky sooty atmosphere of the Potteries (Stoke-on-Trent) in early 20th century must have been a deadly killer, and that large numbers of workers were consequently later coughing themselves to death from industry-induced lung cancer.

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Ok, well let’s look at the workers most likely to be affected by such bad air quality. Let’s look at the working-class potters exposed for years to significant levels of scouring dust and other factory dust. Surely they must have been uniquely vulnerable to the often smoggy atmosphere of the city? There was a huge medical study of this very group, documented in a paper I found titled “Preliminary analysis of proportional mortality in a cohort of British pottery workers exposed to crystalline silica”, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health (1995)…

“A cohort of 7,020 male pottery workers born in 1916-1945 was identified from all employees in dust-exposed trades … All but 256 (3.6%) were traced … death certificates were obtained for 940 (92.5%) of the fatalities”.

That’s a pretty good research sample and data set. So how many died from inhaling the fine dust for years, alongside living more generally in the city’s smoky atmosphere? Among this huge research sample the study could only find…

“fatalities – 122 from respiratory cancer.” And the study found that “lung cancer mortality was dominated by smoking and significantly affected by past asbestos exposure.”

Of the 122 only 47 of the deaths could be even tentatively tied only to silica dust exposure. That’s 47 too many, of course. But amid the smoky polluted air during the early and mid 20th century period, in one of Europe’s most polluted cities and among workers in one of the most vulnerable trades… it’s remarkable that there were just 47 silica dust deaths from lung cancer among 7,020 men.

By contrast, today Stoke appears to have clean air but in actual fact has high levels of dangerous air pollution

“The city features at number 14 in the list of places named and shamed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for breaching air pollution safety levels.”

Overall, it’s true that the UK’s averaged level of the most dangerous PM2.5s particles has gone down a little since 1990 and are now actually below the WHO guideline level. However, this is an UK average and doesn’t matter much in terms of looking at hotspots in congested places like Stoke-on-Trent…

Mostly this is because of the large number of diesel cars and vans. These were unleashed under Labour in what has proven to be a worthless attempt to cut carbon dioxide emissions and stop ‘global warming’. Since then they have been pumping out particulates that are currently reported in the UK press to be contributing to “40,000 early deaths a year in the UK”, with 9,500 of those deaths in London. There are about 80 large urban areas outside London, so those numbers equate to about 380 early deaths per year for each large urban area outside London.

That’s a very rough division of course. It’s also possible that the currently-mooted “40,000 early deaths” is inflated by including near-future deaths or is even an overestimate. Health and other scares often over-claim on the figures. A few years ago some UK medical experts were saying that diesel can only be clearly and firmly linked with 7,000 deaths per year, with the other deaths coming from other forms of vehicle fumes. But the UK government scientists’ best estimate for 2015 was that…

“In all the government estimates that particulate pollution from all sources kills 29,000 Britons a year.”

So let’s assume that current claims of 40,000 might well be too high, due to the usual media-scare ‘escalator’ which requires ever higher inflation of the statistics in order to grab the attention of frazzled journalists. But even if we cut the 40,000 in half, Stoke would still be seeing around 200 early deaths per year across all age groups. Thankfully we have a huge number of mature trees in the city, and are fairly ‘well swept’ by winds from rural parts, which may help matters somewhat. I’d guess those additional factors may bring early deaths down to 150 a year.

But even so, that’s per year. Across the city’s population of 259,252 for the same time period encompassed by the 1916-1945 study (approx. 30 years), that would mean 4,500 deaths. That’s about 1.7% of the current population set to die early of particulates from 2017-2047. Even when using very conservative low-end figures, 1.7% is far higher than the approx 0.5% chance of getting lung cancer from working in an especially dusty bit of a mid 20th century pottery factory.

So where would you rather be: 1) walking to work for a mile each day along the Leek Road in summer 2016 at rush-hour; or 2) working each day amid dust as a pottery scourer in a Burslem factory from roughly 1936 onwards? On the figures it seems you’d be safer as the pottery scourer, sucking in dust at the factory — while also smoking heavily, warming your hands on a smoking coal fire at home, and breathing in the then-smoggy air of Stoke when outdoors. Ah, those were the days…

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