Air pollution in the UK is responsible for 40,000 deaths each year, according to new research published by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
The new report, Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution (PDF), was published this week in the UK by two prestigious organizations — Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. The report highlights the “dangerous impact air pollution is having on” the UK’s health, contributing to health issues such as cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and changes linked to dementia.
The report is remarkably comprehensive, providing examples of pollution’s impact on health throughout a person’s entire lifespan — from a baby in the womb through to old age.
“We now know that air pollution has a substantial impact on many chronic long term conditions, increasing strokes and heart attacks in susceptible individuals,” said Professor Stephen Holgate, who chaired the working party for the report. “We know that air pollution adversely effects the development of the fetus, including lung development. And now there is compelling evidence that air pollution is associated with new onset asthma in children and adults. When our patients are exposed to such a clear and avoidable cause of death, illness and disability, it our duty to speak out.”
Most importantly, maybe, was the conclusion that, despite “acceptable” limits set by the World Health Organization, the report concludes that there is no level of exposure that can be ever seen as ‘safe’. Subsequently, the report advocates massive change, providing a series of major reform proposals the UK Government would do well to pay attention to. These included:
- Put the onus on polluters – Polluters must be required to take responsibility for harming our health. Political leaders at a local, national and EU level must introduce tougher regulations, including reliable emissions testing for cars.
- Local authorities need to act to protect public health when air pollution levels are high – When these limits are exceeded, local authorities must have the power to close or divert roads to reduce the volume of traffic, especially near schools.
- Monitor air pollution effectively – Air pollution monitoring by central and local government must track exposure to harmful pollutants in major urban areas and near schools. These results should then be communicated proactively to the public in a clear way that everyone can understand.
- Quantify the relationship between indoor air pollution and health – We must strengthen our understanding of the key risk factors and effects of poor our quality in our homes, schools and workplaces. A coordinated effort is required to develop and apply any necessary policy changes.
- Define the economic impact of air pollution – Air pollution damages not only our physical health, but also our economic wellbeing. We need further research into the economic benefits of well designed policies to tackle it.
- Lead by example within the NHS – The health service must no longer be a major polluter; it must lead by example and set the benchmark for clean air and safe workplaces.
“There is clear evidence to suggest that long term exposure to air pollution has a wide range of adverse effects in childhood, and exposure during early life can lead to the development of serious conditions such as asthma,” said Professor Jonathan Grigg, Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and the Vice Chair of the working party and representing the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “As NHS costs continue to escalate due to poor public health – asthma alone costs the NHS an estimated £1 billion a year – it essential that policy makers consider the effects of long term exposure on our children and the public purse.”
Rightly so, however, the report also highlights several roles that the public themselves can take to reduce their exposure to air pollution, including:
- trying alternatives to car travel or preferably taking the active option: bus, train, walking and cycling
- aiming for energy efficiency in our homes
- keeping gas appliances and solid fuel burners in good repair
- learning more about air quality and staying informed
“Taking action to tackle air pollution in the UK will reduce the pain and suffering for many people with long term chronic health conditions, not to mention lessening the long term demands on our NHS,” SAID Dr Andrew Goddard, the Royal College of Physicians lead for the report. “This is not just a job for government, local authorities, or business – as individuals we can all do our part to reduce pollutant exposure.”
In line with this, the Royal College of Physicians has created “6 Steps To Breathing Better Air”:
Be aware of the air quality where you live
Replace old gas appliances in your home
Ensure you have an energy efficient home
Alter how you travel. Take the active travel option: bus, train, walking and cycling
Talk to your MP
Harness technology to stay informed and monitor air pollution effectively