SEPIA photos of olde-worlde Glasgow, where pale faces stare out of the sooty air, and lipstick and shined shoes bring a note of glamour to the faded scene, never lose their allure. Much has changed since the glory days of the second city of empire, but what immediately stands out in these pictures, for me at least, are the hats. Defying the drabness of their surroundings, our forebears added a jaunty or defiant note to their workaday clothes with cloches and turbans, fedoras, bowlers and cloth caps.

I say much has changed, but likewise much has not. The asphyxiating smoke and grime of a bygone industrial age belong to an almost Dickensian past, a time when nobody knew the dreadful toll that coal and woodsmoke and noxious chemicals were taking on the population’s lungs and hearts. We view with pity, and disbelief, the generations who did not make the connection between what was being pumped into the air, and the appalling levels of bronchial, asthmatic and pulmonary illness city dwellers suffered.

Yet we have not advanced as far as we like to think. Our great-grandparents might never have been seen in public without a hat, but soon we could be as diligently strapping on face masks before stepping out of doors, as if heading for a Venetian carnival, or Tokyo.

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That day drew closer with the revelation that at peak commuting times, some of Glasgow’s underground rail stations have levels of air pollution nine times higher than the World Health Organisation’s official limit. It was not only a shocking discovery, but shameful too. As are the poisonous emissions in traffic hot spots, such as Hope Street and George Square or Edinburgh’s Queensferry Road.

Responding to the findings at Ibrox, Buchanan Street and Partick stations, where pollution at rush hour is most severe, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) has assured passengers that the levels of toxic fine particulates found in its stations pose no threat to travellers. Meanwhile an expert in air pollution, Dr Sean Semple of the University of Aberdeen, has said that while it would be “preferable that the very young, elderly and those with existing conditions like asthma and pulmonary disease didn’t have to breathe this additional fine particulate matter”, for those who are fit and well, so long as they were not spending the entire day below the surface, the impact would be “negligible”.

It is hardly a resounding vote of confidence. And while one does not wish to become hysterical or so hypochondriac that every hazard is magnified into a mortal threat, it would certainly make you hesitate before heading beneath ground.

Obviously there is airborne pollution wherever we go. Even in the Cairngorms, under flight paths, or in the airstream of currents from heavily polluted regions, there is no such thing as totally clean air. There is a difference, though, between the unavoidable degree of contamination we must learn to accept, and eye-watering levels of impurity. If the concentration of particulates found in the subterranean depths is deemed dangerous for the vulnerable, then by definition it cannot be good for anyone. How long does it take the healthy to become the opposite if they are daily inhaling such foul stuff?

Above ground, however, the blight can be severe and, arguably, is less avoidable. Those who never descend to the clockwork orange are also at risk, one fears, from fumes emitted by Glasgow’s exhaust-belching old buses, and ceaseless streams of cars. A parent with a pram near a crocodile of buses on the Great Western Road must surely fear what their child is imbibing. Yet what can they do about it?

As our lieges wring their hands over the state of the nation’s health, blame is insidiously laid on poor diets and lifestyles, implying that individuals are the agents of their own misfortune. Yet while we all are responsible for the way we treat our bodies, the impact of the environment upon us is surely of equal importance, and possibly more, in determining how we fare. Those who live in a city centre or alongside motorways or near flight paths, are at higher risk of suffering diseases caused by air pollution. Not only is this not their fault, but they are also far more likely as a consequence to be afflicted with the problems that accompany poor health, among them unemployment, hardship and anxiety. Under those conditions, a person can spiral into catastrophic ill health, whose original cause was completely beyond their control.

Government plans to create traffic-free zones, or run trams to Glasgow Airport, or encourage electric buses and cars, are steps in the right direction. If only they could go faster. They are also seriously late in the day, since the problem of air pollution has been well known for years. Could new policies have been prompted as much by fear of legal action as by altruism? Whatever the spur, we can be thankful that improvements are at least in train. If only the same could be said of Glasgow’s underground, we would all breathe easier.