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The impact of air pollution

Doctors say 40,000 deaths a year are linked to air pollution
The impact of air pollution Picture from MyGreenPod Sustainable News

A landmark report from the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) sets out the dangerous impact air pollution is currently having on the UK’s health – with around 40,000 deaths a year linked to air pollution.

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A long-term problem

Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution reveals that the harm from air pollution is not only linked to short-term episodes but is also a long-term problem with lifelong implications.

The report notes examples from right across an individual’s lifespan, from a baby’s first weeks in the womb through to the years of older age.

Examples include the adverse effects of air pollution on the development of the foetus, with emphasis on lung and kidney development, miscarriage and increases in heart attacks and strokes for those in later life as well as the associated links to asthma, diabetes, dementia, obesity and cancer for the wider population.

Air pollution and asthma

In relation to asthma, the report stresses the significant point that after years of debate, there is now compelling evidence that air pollution is associated with both reduced lung growth in childhood and new onset asthma in children and in adults. It also highlights that air pollution increases the severity of asthma for those with the disease.

‘We now know that air pollution has a substantial impact on many chronic long term conditions, increasing strokes and heart attacks in susceptible individuals. 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 is our duty to speak out.’

Professor Stephen Holgate, working party for the report

Indoor air pollution

The dangers of outdoor air pollution have been well documented, however the report highlights the often overlooked section of our environment: indoor space.

Factors such as kitchen products, faulty boilers, open fires, fly-sprays and air fresheners, all of which can cause poor air quality in our homes, workspaces and schools.

According to the report indoor air pollution may have caused or contributed to 99,000 deaths annually in Europe.

No ‘safe’ level

Although government and the World Health Organization (WHO) set ‘acceptable’ limits for various pollutants in our air, the report states that there is in fact no level of exposure that can be seen to be safe, with any exposure carrying an associated risk.

As a result, the report offers a number of major reform proposals setting out what must be done if we are to tackle the problem of air pollution:

  • 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.

What you can do

The report also emphasises how the public can do their part to reduce pollutant exposure, noting the impact collective action can have on the future levels of air pollution in our communities.

Suggestions include:

  • 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

‘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. As NHS costs continue to escalate due to poor public health – asthma alone costs the NHS an estimated £1 billion a year – it is essential that policy makers consider the effects of long-term exposure on our children and the public purse.

‘We therefore call on Government to monitor exposure to air pollution more effectively to help us identify those children and young people who are most at risk. We also ask the public to consider ways of reducing their own contribution to air pollution by taking simple measures such as using public transport, walking and cycling, and not choosing to drive high-polluting vehicles.’

Professor Jonathan Grigg, Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine at Queen Mary University of London

Click here to read the full report, Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution.

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