Andy Grieve: air quality analyst

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Everyone has a story. For the past few years, air pollution has stopped being London’s dirty secret. That’s in no small part due to the work of scientists at King’s College London such as Archway-based Andrew Grieve. Interview by Nicola Baird. Photos by Kimi Gill

Andy Grieve, air quality analyst living in Archway and working the other side of the river is a big fan of cycling. “You can fit so many more bikes on a road than cars; bikes don’t produce any pollution and doing exercise is good for you.” (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

It’s more than 50 years since The Great Smog of London (5-9 December 1952) blanketed London in a noxious fog that killed more than 4,000 people. The Clean Air Act followed but air pollution continues to be a huge issue for Londoners. It took just five days from the start of 2017 before a London street broke its annual EU pollution limits. Air pollution in Islington and all the other London boroughs has been exacerbated by diesel vehicles – which is why Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently introduced the T (toxicity) charge to the C (congestion) charge and in Islington it’s the reason diesel cars will be charged more to park from January 2018.

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Andrew Grieve – known as Andy – is a senior air quality analyst at King’s College London. He cycles from Archway to his job on the Waterloo Campus despite knowing exactly how polluted London is, because it’s his job to do those measurements. “I go over Blackfriars Bridge and it’s weird when you can’t see the Shard, it looks like someone has rubbed it out,” he says talking about a recent high pollution day. “

This positivity is impressive as Andy was part of a King’s College London team which tested the lung health of children in Hackney and Tower Hamlets over six years. “We found that kids in that area are growing up with smaller lungs than they should have, because they are growing up with so much pollution.” A report for the previous Mayor (Boris) called this an issue of environmental justice. We looked at who was exposed and who creates pollution. In Tower Hamlets and Hackney a high percentage of the population who are kids are exposed to air pollution and don’t own cars.”

Despite this shocking research find, Andy, 40, stays positive. “Working with Local Authorities, Business Improvement Districts and businesses over the past four to five years I see such enthusiasm to deal with air pollution. London is like a petri dish: it has 1,000 ideas – such as green corridors, green spaces, green benches to sit on, freight consolidation (so you don’t have all these vans delivering), nice streets to walk down and apps that encourage people to keep away from busy roads – so I see people trying many different ways to clean up our air and that keeps me hopeful.”

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Places Andy Grieve likes in Islington

  • I have two little kids (my boy is three and a half, and my girl one) so I spend most of my time in Whittington park which is lovely. Also Waterlow Park
  • Really like the St Johns Tavern on 91 Junction Road, N19. Great selection of beers and the food is great,
  • Map gift shop, 93 Junction Road, N19, is fantastic for presents and cards.
  • There’s a little ecology centre, just next to Arsenal tube station, Gillespie Park which is really nice.
  • Love the Spoke, 710 Holloway Road, N19, also, it’s my local, fantastic burgers.

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Andy Grieve: “I see such enthusiasm to deal with air pollution.” (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

Recently Andy also shared his science findings with students at Westminster Kingsway sixth form, in Camden, so they could write, produce and star in their own play, Fog Everywhere, about air pollution and growing up in London. This was put on at the Camden People’s Theatre, minutes from Warren Street, for a climate change festival in early November. See a review of the play on Around Britain No Plane blog here

It’s still a little known fact that drivers, and their passengers, suffer from higher levels of air pollution than cyclists or walkers.

“I never imagined our research would end up as a play (which was funded by the Wellcome Trust). But as a way of getting kids to think about pollution it is fantastic,” says Andy who has two young children.

“The students were so immersed in it. And they are speaking to their friends and family about it. It’s generally more powerful for people to hear a message from people they know – rather than academics writing papers. I’ve been to see the group a couple of times. It’s great. They are expressing their thoughts about air quality.”

Sixth formers take to the stage in Fog Everywhere at Camden People’s Theatre, directed by Brian Logan. They wrote the play using their own experience of living in London and expertise from the Lung Biology Group at King’s College including air pollution analyst Andy Grieve. (c) Joe Twigg

Asthma impact
The play, Fog Everywhere, made good use of both smoke machines and asthma inhalers. Asthma is something Andy knows a lot about. “I grew up in Edinburgh and had really bad asthma as a child. I always had my ventolin (inhaler). Some of my earliest memories are of waking up in the night and grabbing my ventolin,” he says. “At Stirling University I studied environmental science. In 1999 I did an air pollution study for my dissertation looking at nitrogen concentrations inside and outside cars. Even back then I found the concentrations were higher inside than outside.”  It’s still a little known fact that drivers, and their passengers, suffer from higher levels of air pollution than cyclists or walkers.

He then moved back to Edinburgh, switching between banking and insurance jobs before, “I got back into science working on air pollution at Edinburgh Council, before joining King’s College in 2005. Even through the late 2000s and after 2010 air pollution wasn’t regular news, though it was monitored, as Local Authorities have a statutory duty. But the rise of diesel vehicles has really fuelled the terrible situation we find ourselves in now. Now almost every day there’s an air quality headline.”

Andy’s pleased that, “The Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has really taken it on as one of his top tier issues and taken some positive steps to try to combat it. We have  the T charge targeting old HGVs and big vans – they are a small proportion of the fleet, but giving out the most pollution. Next thing is the ultra low emission zone, scheduled for the end of 2019, which is out for consultation at the moment.”

A big thank you to Andy and the team at King’s College London because there’s no excuse ignoring how dirty London’s air is, and plenty of reasons to try and do something about it.

Just for the record blowing your nose to find dark horrors or looking at an exhaust stained Hi-Vis cycle jacket may be disgusting, but what’s really bad for our lungs are the tiny particles that diesel vehicles release (PM10s and even smaller PM2.5s) which can enter our bloodstream leading to myriad health problems and shortening lives..

  • More info about the Great Smog of 1952 here 
  • Avoid using or buying diesel vehicles in urban areas. Islington has a large fleet of Ofo bikes, car share vehicles and also electric charging points, eg, near Freighliners Farm, Highbury Pool and also at the Shell Garage on Holloway Road. 
  • During high pressure weather (smoggy/foggy) avoid using solid fuel heating (eg, don’t use woodburners).

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola