Hi reddit, I’m Dr Gary Fuller, an air pollution scientist at King’s College London. I recently published a book, The Invisible Killer, about the history of air pollution (did you know scientists have been studying it since medieval times?) and its effects.

While modern air pollution might not look like the thick industrial smoke of the past, it’s still a huge problem—more than 90 percent of the world’s population is exposed to air pollution concentrations that exceed WHO guidelines. But we can fight back!

Get the book here: https://www.mhpbooks.com/books/the-invisible-killer/

Learn more: https://www.londonair.org.uk/LondonAir/Default.aspx

Proof: https://twitter.com/DrGaryFuller/status/1110254985311412228


Thank you all! I wrote the book to increase awareness of air pollution about reducing the intolerable health burden from breathing bad air. I have to sign off now but I’ve really enjoyed answering your questions and seeing the debate.


Comments: 278 • Responses: 14  • Date: 

Marshalllipe118 karma

What is a small change people could make in their lives that would have a great affect on the amount of air pollution they cause?

MelvilleHouse223 karma

The small change that would make greatest difference is to swap car journeys for walking or cycling. I don’t know where you’re based but, in the UK, 40% of car journeys are less than 2 miles (~3 km). If we can swap these journeys for walking and cycling we can get help air pollution, reduce climate change emissions, decrease the urban noise that plagues so many and help with the chronic diseases of inactivity such as obesity and heart disease.

patanwilson76 karma

I commuted to work on a bicycle for a little over 6 years, IN FLORIDA! However, there is very poor planning in Florida for bicycle commuters. I had a short commute in SW Florida, and still it was very dangerous dealing with cars that pay no attention.

Later moved to the Palm Beaches and kept commuting on the bicycle (longer commute), I was run over by a pickup truck and also smashed into an obstacle that really should not have been there.

My bicycle commuting days are over, but my question is, how can a state like Florida, with everything so spread out, provide better infrastructure for cyclists? Is there some sort of "Urban Bicycle Infrastructure Code" that can be used to push for this?

I really have no idea, I just wish I could continue to commute on a bicycle to work. I ended up getting a Chevy Spark with awesome gas mileage, but it still uses more gas than my bicycle.

breadedfishstrip12 karma

The biggest thing for cyclists is seperated or protected bike paths. It's safe and much more comfortable for both drivers who aren't used to sharing the road with cyclists, and for the cyclists themselves.

I live somewhere where biking is pretty common as a method of commuting, but even then there are still roads and local areas where biking is just Not Done because of the badly designed street layout.

Edit: One example of something I do like - we have 'bike highways', which are essentially just bikesized roads, usually parallel to train tracks, which allow you to bike in between cities or towns - think distances up to 15miles or so. I've seen those in the Netherlands too, even near highways. Sometimes they even get their own elevated or underground roundabout for crossing dangerous/high-traffic crossroads.

MelvilleHouse18 karma

Making cycling safe is really important. There's also a critical mass factor. when drivers stop viewing cyclists as hazards on the road and instead think of them as their sister or child then driving behaviours change. In the City of London (the financial district) the bicycle is now the most popular vehicle in the morning rush hour. Change is possible with the right investment.

nuck_forte_dame19 karma

I'd argue a much easier and smaller step is just to stop going on cruises. Cruise ships create enormous amounts of pollution. The equivalent of 376 million cars worth of sulphur dioxide.

Just being on the deck of these ships is harmful to your health.

So save the money and don't buy a ticket. It's not only easy but you'll save money and the planet.

MelvilleHouse12 karma

Yep shipping is an air pollution source that we frequently over look. It has big impact in port cities. Have a look at this excellent work by the ICCT... https://twitter.com/TheICCT/status/1109217476993146880

Marshalllipe38 karma

What is a place where people are exposed to high air pollution that they might not expect?

MelvilleHouse97 karma

One of the places with the greatest exposure is when you’re travelling in your car. We all think of our cars as a safe environment but you’re normally following the exhaust of the vehicle in front. Here at King’s College London my colleagues are measuring the pollution exposure of people that have to drive as part of their work, taxi drivers, delivery, drivers etc. This raises some interesting questions since these people are at work and therefore subject to duty of care from their employers.

Another place that is attracting new research attention is subways / the underground. The particle pollution there can be very high. It is also very different to the outside world, it contains lots of metal particles from track wear and also carbon particles too.

pinkmenace3119 karma


MelvilleHouse40 karma

It would be fantastic to have had photographs of air pollution in medieval times. We only have descriptions from the time. The diarist John Evelyn wrote in the 1660’s about London’s air with some great quotes. Rendered into modern English …The smoke was..” so thick that the rooms, galleries and palaces were completely filled with it and people could hardly see each other for the cloud. Indeed, they struggled to even stand up….This ruinous smoke that sullies the city’s glory, imposing a sooty crust or fur on all the city lights, spoiling man’s property, tarnishing the plate, gildings and furniture, and corroding even iron bars and the hardest stones because of the caustic elements that accompany the sulphur.”

A great way to see what air pollution was like is through Monnet’s paintings. Around 1900 Monnet came to London for what he termed the light but was really the interplay of air pollution and sunlight. Have a look at his houses of Parliament paintings of amazing red sunsets and his views of Waterloo Bridge.



Interesting I’m sitting in the place painted in the picture right now. London’s South Bank is a very different place today.

scutchie18 karma

What industry is the greatest villain in air pollution and what can we do to force them into compliance?

MelvilleHouse45 karma

Hi - I won’t point the finger at any specific industry but at all those that burn coal without abatement systems. Time and time again this has caused massive environmental and health impacts. The acid rain and forest die back problems of Scandinavia in the 1970s and 1980s and the “crazy bad “ smog’s of Chinese cities are two examples. Visit these places now and you will see changes that have come from proper chimney controls and swapping to other fuels such as natural gas. The only way to sort these problems is robust regulations and enforcement – it works.

cbelt311 karma

I will add a note that the US coal power plant Emissions producing acid rain that decimated Canadian forests and lakes has been mitigated, but many of the lakes have not recovered

MelvilleHouse14 karma

it's similar in Scandinavia. Lots of lakes are still limed regularly.

HFXmer15 karma

Does going vegan have a big impact on global emissions? I've read contrary points on the matter with many saying yes and many saying not really.

MelvilleHouse42 karma

Agriculture is one of the most overlooked among our pollution sources, is agriculture and, more broadly, the way in which we manage land. Many of us escape into the countryside as a respite from the city and we think of it as a low-pollution environment, but farming is an important source of our particle air pollution. The burst

of ammonia released from the fertilising of crops, the spreading of manure stored overwinter and moving animals to outdoor summer grazing all play an important role in the particle pollution each springtime. This is becoming an increasingly important problem across the developing world too – and especially in east Asia, where pollution from new, badly controlled industry mixes with ammonia from agriculture and increased meat production. In the US, the control of ammonia from farming would now be the most cost-effective way to reduce regional particle pollution. A decrease of 50 per cent in ammonia pollution from farming could reduce the annual global mortality from particle pollution by around 250,000 people including around 16,000 in North America, 52,000 in Europe and 105,000 in east Asia. We cannot stop farming. We need food to eat, but simple measures such as covering slurry stores, installing better housing for animals and injecting fertiliser into soils rather than spraying it in the open air would go a long way to achieving these targets. The role of agriculture in our air pollution is clear, but it is badly understood by farmers. It is also badly understood by governments who have spent decades developing control measures for transport and industrial air pollution.

billymadisons11 karma

What is a small thing companies could do to reduce air pollution that they don't do because of a small cost?

MelvilleHouse13 karma

Companies have a really import role to play. I’ve been working with many businesses in London. The main thing that they and all of us over look is the air pollution from deliveries. Vans, up by 71% since 1996, are the fastest growing vehicle type in UK and there’s lots of data that says the same from other countries. Just in time deliveries for industry, retail and offices mean inefficiencies in storage have been swapped for inefficient transport on our roads. City centres are criss-crossed by partially loaded vans, with competing operators duplicating journeys. In London 39% of vans are less than one quarter full. are one possible answer. These collect deliveries for an area in a single location and the last miles are done with fully-loaded, and in some cases electric, vehicles. So far, these centres have not proved economic, since deliveries do not bear the full cost of their environmental impact. Transport planners have a good perspective on how people travel. Bus, train, tram and metro networks are organised to move people, but free-market solutions are assumed to be good enough for freight. The consequences can be seen on our streets and in the air that we breathe.

The other thing that companies can do is around the way that their employees travel. Where I work at King’s we have interest free-loans for annual public transport tickets, there are tax breaks on buying bicycles as well as secure bike parking and showers for those that put in lots of pedalling effort. When I talk to people in the US about my work place they are often amazed about the parking spaces available. Our building has 1,600 employees and over 5,000 students. For this we have two parking palaces, both reserved for disabled students. It can be done.

doihead_200110 karma

Hi Dr. Fuller. Thanks for doing this AMA! How big of a problem is organic solvent waste (from pharmaceutical production/chemical proccessing) to the environment? I heard that most solvent waste is burned or evaporated into the air and was wondering what the impact was.

MelvilleHouse21 karma

This is a really interesting question. In 2018 a US study showed that the pesticides, coatings, printing inks, adhesives, cleaning agents and personal care products used in the US now dominate the pollutants that form ozone. The finding will be equally applicable across Europe and beyond. Manufacturers will say that their responsibility ends once the product leaves the factory, but that will do nothing to solve the problem. Control of air pollution may end up with the choices that each of us make in the supermarket and on the high street, and when we buy online. This will require better product labelling and information for us as consumers, or restrictions on the solvents that can be used.

LavishLanguish10 karma

How can I protect myself from air pollution on a day to day basis without wearing a face mask?

MelvilleHouse21 karma

A good way to protect yourself is to think about the way that you travel around. Walk along back round away from a major road and you can half the traffic pollution that you breath. In London we publish maps of the city’s air pollution so that people can thing about routes.

https://www.londonair.org.uk/london/asp/annualmaps.asp (the red bits are the bad ones!)

But the best way to combat the problem is trying to reduce your own emissions too.

Interesting that you ask about masks. Images of the polluted streets of east Asia often show people wearing them. Some trials on the streets of Beijing have shown that if you have a heart problem, a mask can help reduce symptoms, but key to the effectiveness of a mask is the fit around your face. Even a small leak from having stubble, facial wrinkles or a beard could render the mask useless. Less explored are the negative effects from having to breathe harder when wearing a mask, which could place additional strain on the heart and lungs of people already in bad health. There is little evidence on how to balance these negative effects against any positive impact. Have a look too at a short piece that I did on this for the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/10/pollutionwatch-how-effective-are-face-masks-beijing

releasethekraken249 karma

Are there any countries that are doing a good job combatting air pollution that the rest of the world should be treating as an model?

MelvilleHouse18 karma

China is now making great leaps forward in controlling it's air pollution. Particle pollution in the 62 Chinese cities tracked by the World Health Organization (WHO) dropped by an average of 30% between 2013 and 2016. Beijing still has a long way to go to comply with WHO guidelines. Tackling the remaining air pollution requires new, smarter policies but the Chinese example shows what can be achieved with sufficient political will. (OK in a different political system to western democracies I grant you).

China's Belt and Road plans are set to be the most ambitious infrastructure and development programme that humanity has ever seen. Covering seventy countries and around 65 per cent of the world’s population, it will create land and sea routes, along with energy infrastructure, westwards from China across Asia to southern Europe and east Africa, moving a quarter of the world’s goods. It is an unparalleled opportunity for investment in green and low-pollution development, but as ever this depends on the political priorities.

Big_Funaki6 karma

Hi Dr. Fuller, Thanks for taking the time to do this AMA

Are you a part of any studies that show (Or do you know of any) that look at how pollution levels change within parks? I'm specifically curious about how spending time in "green spaces" changes human health, so any insight you have on that would be awesome.

MelvilleHouse12 karma

Air pollution from traffic is lot lower in parks. Have a look at our air pollution maps for London, https://www.londonair.org.uk/london/asp/annualmaps.asp , zoom out a bit and you can see the lower concentrations of NO2 is Hyde Park for instance.

MrDotCaulfield3 karma

What do you say to those who believe climate change is not anthropogenic? Is there such thing as “clean coal”? Thank you for your time and I look forward to reading your book!

MelvilleHouse14 karma

Air pollution and climate change are tightly linked and we must make sure that we make the right choices for both. Sadly, some of the actions that we have taken on climate change, such as wood burning and encouraging diesel cars in Europe have been very bad for air pollution.

Interestingly we’ve been measuring CO2 in London for the last 6 years. Even in the city with all of the local traffic and heating systems we can detect the rise in the global background. When we started our instruments would bottom out at around 390-395 ppm now they never measure below 410 ppm.

The next decades will be defined by battles over climate change. We will be fighting to reduce our climate change emissions and to maintain our lives and economies in the face of rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. Coal has fuelled our industrial and social development for nearly three hundred years, from the industrial revolution in Europe to the recent industrialisation of China. But this has come at a price. Air pollution from the burning of coal features throughout this book and no other human act has had such a profound impact on our planet. Coal-burning has damaged our health and curtailed the lives of millions of people, and it continues to do so. It has damaged ecosystems and has been the main contributor to the increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Climate change science has finally allowed us to reframe coal from being a valuable natural resource to a dangerous substance that must be left in the ground if we are to prevent uncontrollable global warming. The curtailment of unabated coal-burning can only be a good thing for our air, especially if it is replaced by energy harvested from renewable sources such as hydro-electric, geothermal, wind, solar, wave and tides.

I hope that you enjoy the book.