Work from home to cut pollution deaths
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Air pollution from cars is estimated to cause thousands of premature deaths a year. Now researchers are calling for more people to work from home, a move they reckon could help prevent 10,000 deaths annually. Homeworker Sheena Grant looks at the evidence...
In the last 12 years I’ve worked from home two days every week, cutting the amount of driving I do by about 100 miles.
It saves me money, wear and tear on my car but mostly, time - hugely important for a working parent.
In all those years I’d never calculated how much all those weeks of 100 miles added up to but when I heard about a study by Oxford and Bath universities that said Britons should work at home to help stop people dying from air pollution caused by cars, I decided to do a little maths.
The results are astonishing. But for my flexible working arrangements I would have driven an extra 56,400 miles since 2006. That’s more than twice around the world. It’s a lot of money in fuel but it’s also a lot of pollution. And I’m just one person. Imagine how many hundreds of thousands of miles of driving could be saved if home working caught on in a big way.
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All employees have the legal right to request flexible working - not just parents and carers - yet according to figures released by the TUC last month only 6.2% of employees in the East of England regularly worked from home in 2017, slightly more than the 6.1% UK average.
There are around 4 million more UK workers who say they would like to work from home for at least some of their working week but are not given the chance - something those Oxford and Bath University researchers say will have to change if we are to make an impact on pollution.
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Their study examined the health costs of air pollution and concluded that emissions from cars and vans add up to almost £6 billion a year in damage, mostly due to diesel vehicles. According to the research, more than 10,000 premature deaths a year are being caused by pollutants from cars, such as nitrogen dioxide. Overall, says the study, around 40,000 premature deaths a year have been linked to all forms of air pollution.
The research showed location matters when it comes to driving and air pollution. If a car was driven in inner London over its lifetime the health damage cost would be £7,714, compared to £592 if used only in rural areas, reflecting the fact that the size of the local population affected by the pollution from the car is less. Similarly, if a van was driven in inner London for all of its life the health damage cost would be
£24,004, compared to £1,864 if driven mainly in rural areas.
Dr Alistair Hunt, lecturer in environmental economics at the University of Bath, said: “Our research for the first time illustrates the individual cost that each car and van has on the NHS and wider society. Every time these vehicles are driven, they are having a significant impact on our health.”
Chris Large from charity Global Action Plan, which commissioned the research, said: “Swapping one in four car journeys in urban areas for walking or cycling could save over £1.1 billion in health damage costs per year. Switching 1 million cars from diesel to electric would save more than £360 million per year in health costs from local air pollution.”
The report also urged families to make other lifestyle changes to reduce air pollution from vehicles, such as doing more shopping online and even socialising virtually instead of meeting friends. I’m not so sure about that but I can vouch for the benefits of home working, for at least some of the time. But as with most things in life there are pros and cons. Here are a few that I’ve discovered:
The good: As already mentioned, you save fuel money - and time. My journey to the office is the best part of an hour each way. Need I say more?
Commuting on over-crowded roads can be hugely stressful. Work at home for a calmer life.
It’s more family friendly. In my case, I’m here at the end of the school day.
Contrary to popular belief, as long as you’ve got a good routine and organised work space, you’re more productive away from the distractions of the office.
The bad: It can get lonely without colleagues to talk to.
The lines between home and work can blur - it’s easy to find yourself working far later than you should, which isn’t family friendly!
Winter home heating costs are higher.
The ugly: With the kitchen so close it can be tempting to snack every time you take a tea break.
If you’re not careful, the only exercise you get in a working day is walking from your home office to the kitchen and back.
The picture in East Anglia
Although we may not have the vehicle pollution problems of some inner cities, that doesn’t mean we can be complacent.
Earlier this year, Norwich was identified as one of 32 cities around the country exceeding air pollution levels. The World Health Organisation (WHO) data showed areas that have fine particle air pollution levels above its limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre. Norwich had a score of 11. Fine air particle pollution is linked to diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory infections.
Meanwhile, in 2016 it was reported that poor air quality from vehicle emissions, burning fossil fuels for power and heating and other industrial processes was to blame for more than 600 deaths across Suffolk and north Essex.
And according to the Healthy Suffolk website, 118 people in the county die every year because of particulate air pollution. It also says car drivers are exposed to twice as much air pollution as pedestrians, and nine times as much as cyclists.
To find out more about the law and working from home visit www.gov.uk/flexible-working.