Tackling air pollution

Air quality in the UK could reach WHO safety targets by 2030 if government delivers on pledged reforms

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 2 March 2022

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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If the government implements planned environmental, transport and clean air policies, air pollution levels could fall within the recommended interim target from the World Health Organization (WHO) across most parts of the UK by 2030.

This is according to a new study commissioned by the Clean Air Fund, and conducted by independent researchers from Imperial College London’s Environmental Research Group via Imperial Projects.

‘This is a win, win, win scenario. This new research shows us that achieving much healthier air is possible across the vast majority of the UK by 2030 based on policies the government already plans to implement or that have been recommended by the Committee on Climate Change. The new air quality target for the UK should therefore align with WHO-10 at a minimum, with a view to further reducing pollution beyond this in the future. It is necessary, beneficial and achievable, and will save lives and money.’

JANE BURSTON
Executive director at the Clean Air Fund

£380bn benefits

Implementing existing government plans by 2030 would have significant positive impacts on public health, and could lead to children across the UK suffering an average of 388,000 fewer days of asthma symptoms a year.

The UK would also see a fall in cases of coronary heart disease of over 3,000 cases on average per year, and a rise in average life expectancy of nine to 10 weeks across those born in 2018.

In total, the health and economic benefits, including reduced pressure on the NHS and higher productivity, could be worth up to £380bn between 2018 and 2134. 

‘People living in the UK have long suffered from the health effects of poor air quality.  As this report demonstrates, there is no excuse for such a situation to continue. We understand the sources of air pollution that must be targeted, and we have the technologies to reduce emissions to low levels or to eliminate them completely. By grasping this knowledge and capability now, the UK government can improve our air quality and the health of people of all ages and at the same time, contribute to climate neutrality.’

PROFESSOR FRANK KELLY
Imperial’s Environmental Research Group

UK air pollution targets

The WHO guideline limit for fine particulate matter – known as PM2.5 -– was updated in 2021 in light of accumulated scientific evidence on the dangers of even low levels of air pollution.

The guideline limit was reduced from an annual average of 10 micrograms per cubic metre (WHO-10) to 5 micrograms per cubic metre, with WHO-10 now an ‘interim target’.

The current UK target is 20 micrograms per cubic metre – four times higher than the new WHO recommendation – and is due to be updated later this year.

‘It’s time for the government to stop dragging its heels and accept that ambitious clean air targets, set in law, are essential if we are to prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths each year. Our current legal limits are unfit for purpose, at least double the limit of that set out in this report, and four times the recommended level outlined by the World Health Organization in September.

‘How many children have developed asthma, seen their symptoms worsen or been admitted to hospital because our clean air targets don’t protect them? Breathing toxic air creates new lung conditions and worsens existing ones like asthma and COPD, leading to life-threatening attacks and flare ups. 60% of people with asthma tell us that air pollution is a trigger for their symptoms; if these targets are reached, hundreds of thousands of children with asthma across the country could breathe easier. This would be life-changing for so many families and young people.

‘This report shows that we mustn’t accept anything less than meeting the World Health Organization’s guideline interim target of 10µg/m3 by 2030, with ambition to go further.’

SARAH WOOLNOUGH
CEO at Asthma + Lung UK

Preventing future deaths

Campaigners have been calling for the UK to align its targets with WHO guidelines for many years.

Last year the coroner overseeing the inquest into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah – the first person in the UK to have air pollution recognised as a cause of death on her death certificate – recommended that the government adopt the WHO guidelines as targets in his Prevention of Future Deaths report.

‘We are in a public health crisis and we can’t keep ignoring it. Nine years since Ella’s passing, the same number of children are dying from asthma every year — even though medications and expertise have improved while smoking has declined.

‘Health professionals are clear that air pollution is an urgent but also solvable problem. The goal to lower PM2.5 pollution to 10 micrograms must be the first stop on the way to meeting the WHO’s new strengthened guidelines for protecting public health – and 2030 should be the absolute latest that we achieve it. This is about saving children’s lives today, not 10 years from now.’

ROSAMUND ADOO-KISSI-DEBRAH
BreatheLife ambassador and founder of the Ella Roberta Family Foundation

Cleaner air across the UK

Researchers showed that the WHO-10 interim target is achievable almost everywhere in the UK by 2030, with less than 1% of the country predicted to experience pollution above the WHO interim target.

Even in historically highly polluted areas like London, drastic improvements in air quality are projected (the area of London exceeding WHO-10 is predicted to drop to 0.6% by 2030 from 83% in 2018), with some additional actions required to bring these places in line with WHO-10. 

‘I have always been clear that with the right level of ambition we can meet World Health Organization limits for air pollution and today’s report from the Clean Air Fund confirms this.
 
‘The government must now move quickly to adopt these standards as legal targets for the UK. It is only by doing this that we will protect the most vulnerable people in our society, who suffer the worst impacts of air pollution.
 
‘In London the Ultra Low Emission Zone has already helped cut some roadside toxic pollutants in central London by half. This shows that real progress is possible with the right commitment from local and national governments.’

SADIQ KHAN
Mayor of London

Improving public health

PM2.5 is the most damaging type of air pollution: breathing it in for just a few hours or days is harmful, and exposure over months or years is particularly dangerous.

It is associated with multiple causes of death – including coronary heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia – as well as both cardiovascular and respiratory diseases including asthma.

Children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with heart and lung diseases are particularly vulnerable. 

Making a legal commitment to reduce PM2.5 levels to below WHO-10 would make the UK the second European country to do so, and set an example for other countries facing the air pollution crisis.

‘The UK’s brand new Environment Act sets some of the most ambitious environmental targets in the world. Poor air quality is the leading environmental cause of human ill health, and so we must follow suit with robust targets for reducing air pollution. Setting the WHO interim target of 10 μg/m3 will make the air we breathe cleaner, saving lives and creating huge cost savings through improved public health.’

BEN GOLDSMITH
Chair of the Conservative Environment Network

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