Reading the Sunday Herald the other week, my eye was caught by the headline “Eco-chic: the kilt that cuts pollution“, this was one I had to read. The story was about a collaboration between Kilt Maker Howie Nicholsby and Scientist Tony Ryan, to create a kilt for the Edinburgh International Science Festival which could “help clean the air of polluted cities”, apparently. The idea behind this is to spray the kilts with titanium dioxide nanoparticles so that the clothing then acts as a catalytic converter, mopping up the air pollution and converting it into less toxic substances. The pollutant these kilts are aimed at dealing with is Nitric oxide (NO), which mainly comes from vehicle and industry emissions. NO is not considered harmful in itself, but when released in the air it becomes nitrogen dioxide, which can cause respiratory problems. In this case, it converts nitrogen dioxide (NO2) into “harmless” nitrates which can then be washed away.

I have a few reservations about these pollution-busting garments.

It is not because it uses nanotechnology, there is much rubbish talked about the supposed risks of nanotechnologies, as if they are all the same thing. Each technology needs to be looked on its own merits, talk of grey goo is best left to those whose knowledge of biology comes from talking to the plants in their greenhouse.

Nor is it because I under estimate the level of the problems of air pollution. Four thousand people died as a result of the Great Smog of London in 1952, and this led to the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1956. In 2008, 4,000 people died in London from air pollution and 30,000 died across the whole of the UK. Air pollution costs Britain £10bn a year, with 925,000 people exposed to concentrations of NO2 exceeding the legal limits. There is a very serious problem with air pollution in Britain which is not being taken seriously enough. According to SEPA, there has been “little or no demonstrable improvement in air quality” over the last 10 years in areas targeted for action by local and national government. We are now in a situation where Scottish ministers have applied to the EU for permission to delay complying with the safety limits, even though we have already had ten years to get things sorted out. We don’t need an extension to the deadline for compliance, we need our politicians to get their heads out of the sand and take the issue seriously.

No, the reason I have reservations about these “pollution-busting garments” is because they fail to actually address the problem of pollution.

First off, they only remove one air pollutant, what about all the others that come out of the exhaust pipes of motor vehicles? Secondly, it doesn’t actually remove the pollutant from the environment, it merely moves it to another place. When the garments are washed, the nitrates are mixed with phosphorus from the washing powder and flushed down the drain, where they become a potent water pollutants, causing problems with eutrophication down stream.

It would be far better to deal with the problem at the source and reduce the number of motor vehicle movements which lead to pollution in the first place. Fortunately, there are signs that this is starting to happen in Edinburgh where higher than average death rates, linked to air pollution, have prompted plans for an overhaul of traffic systems. These proposed changes are not before time, and it is only to be hoped that they are not scuppered by a narrow minded campaign from a scurrilous local rag.

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