The QT

Friday 14 June 2024

Talking about every breath you take

A doctor will be airing her concerns over a health threat which has largely gone under the radar at this year’s What A Wonderful Festival. She talks to Tony Henderson
Dr Laura Keast will be speaking at this year’s What A Wonderful World Festival in Northumberland

Just popping out for a breath of fresh air, you say. But how fresh is that air?

Air pollution is a major issue for Dr Laura Keast, Doctor in Training in Public Health Medicine.

She will be expanding on her concerns in her talk Dirty Air why should we care? on Saturday June 29 at this year’s What A Wonderful Festival, which returns to Alnwick Playhouse from June 27-30.

Dr Keast’s interest lies in the impact our environment has on health, and high up on that list is air pollution, especially in urban areas although there can also be problems in rural locations.  

Air pollution, she says, affects some of us more than others, based on factors such as general health, age, where people live and deprivation.  

“In the UK at the moment  it is the greatest environmental threat to our health which is not really talked about,” says Dr Keast, who lives in Newcastle.  

“Often I think because we can’t see it, we don’t think about the harm that it causes.” 

There are, of course, other environmental health threats including climate change and the consequences of microplastics finding their way into our bodies.

“But our understanding of how harmful air pollution is has increased. We can’t ignore that knowledge. It is an issue which is of huge importance,” says Dr Keast.

If people understand the risks, they tend to want to do something about it.

Dr Laura Keast

Components of air pollution include particulates — tiny particles — and nitrogen dioxide, with vehicles and industries like construction being main sources.

 “Evidence shows that the smaller the particles, the deeper into our bodies they can get. There are links to many health conditions, such as worsening of asthma symptoms and negative impacts on the development of children’s lungs.

“People don’t fully understand the impact and harm it can cause,” she says.

Measures to lessen that impact can include flattening the peak of rush hours, reducing the volume of traffic on the roads, not idling the engine especially near buildings like schools and hospitals, thinking twice about whether a bigger car is necessary, and a planning system which considers the proximity of housing to roads.

“We also need to get people out of their cars more, while trees, hedges and vegetation can be barriers to pollution,” says Dr Keast.

What a Wonderful World Festival returns to Alnwick Playhouse at the end of June

There is sometimes an argument presented for a balance to be struck between the economy and the cost to health.  

But there also needs to be more awareness of how pollution is trapped at street level between high buildings, and how when sitting in stationary or slow moving traffic our cars become fume boxes.

In the course of her studies, Dr Keast conducted research with experts at Newcastle and Northumbria universities which aimed to understand air pollution levels outside 12 of the city’s schools.

Suggestions included creating school run drop off and pick up locations further away from schools and walking to the gates.

Educating people about air pollution also comes into play.

“If people understand the risks, they tend to want to do something about it,” says Dr Keast.

Which comes back to the purpose of public health work, which is improving health by addressing potentially harmful threats before they end up impacting on people, especially the most vulnerable. 

“It’s trying to prevent harm from happening upstream and so stopping people getting ill in the first place.”

Dr Keast’s talk at Alnwick Playhouse is one of the key components in the programme for this year’s  What A Wonderful World Festival, an annual programme of arts, science and nature, which is tackling the theme of clean air pollution and offering plenty of opportunities to join the debate.

Chris Algar who has organised a trio of talks under the banner, Change the Air? says: “We are delighted to have medical doctor Laura Keast who is personally involved in clean air research and campaigning to speak on this important topic. 

“People will be able to find out their personal air pollution profile and explore what changes they can make to improve it.”

The other talks on the afternoon of June 29, come from Beth Chamberlain from the RSPB who will explain how wildlife will respond as the climate changes and the effect of the climate emergency on wildlife; and Prof Alasdair McDonald whose talk on Wind energy and why what you know may be wrong will include information on how wind turbines work and the future of wind power technology.

Beth Chamberlain will give one of three talks as part of Change The Air? sessions at the WaWW Festival in Alnwick

Other WaWW festival highlights include performances from young people who have been working on newly-created pieces under the title, The Air We Breathe, which incorporate dance, music and drama and examine the importance of clean air for future generations.

There is also a special concert from Kathryn Tickell on the evening of June 29, which will see the queen of the Northumbrian pipes “express her love of the Northumberland landscape, people and wildlife”.

Staying with the music, Newcastle-based Voices of Hope, former UK Choir of the Year, will bring the Festival to a close with a world premier of a composition by Janet Wheeler on Sunday, June 20 at 5.30pm.

Voices of Hope will perform a world premiere of a new work as part of the WaWW Festival. Photo by Mark Savage

In between there are opportunities to enjoy poetry readings, singing workshops, film screenings and satellite events at The Alnwick Garden and Rothbury Golf Club.

Liz Anderson, co-director says: “Our Festival is an opportunity for people of all ages to be part of the climate change conversation. 

“We hope lots of people will come along to listen, chat and join in to celebrate our wonderful world and help find ways to protect it.”

Full programme details can be found at the What A Wonderful World website while tickets can be booked via the Alnwick Playhouse website and box office.


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