Air pollution is linked with around 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK, and both policy makers and the public must do more to tackle the problem, two UK doctors’ bodies have warned.
They also put the resulting cost of air pollution in the UK at £20 billion annually, and 240 billion euros (£187 billion) throughout Europe as a whole.
The collaborative report published today (February 23) by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health sets out the ‘best estimate’ of the annual death toll –attributed to particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide combined – based on ‘emerging evidence‘.
Previous official estimates have put the UK annual preamture mortality figure for air pollution at 29,000, but this only includes particulate matter and does not account for NO2. Estmates of impact of the two pollutants together are difficult to quantify, and no government-endorsed estimate has yet been made.
The report also looks at the “overlooked” problem of indoor air pollution, which it estimates may cause or contribute to the deaths of 99,000 people every year in Europe.
It then makes a number of recommendations, calling for increased understanding of the health impacts of air pollution and better monitoring, as well as tougher vehicle regulations and measures such as greater local authority power to divert or close roads.
Chair of the working party which put together the report, RCP’s Professor Stephen Holgate, said that “when our patients are exposed to such clear and avoidable cause of death, illness and disability, it is our duty to speak out”.
The ‘landmark’ report – ‘Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution’ – looks at both the short and long term health effects of exposure, arguing that the air pollution can have “lifelong implications”.
“When our patients are exposed to such clear and avoidable cause of death, illness and disability, it is our duty to speak out” – Professor Stephen Holgate
It looks across an individual’s lifespan, from a baby in the womb up to older age, citing air pollution’s associations with health impacts including: foetal development; lung and kidney development; miscarriage; increases in heart attacks and strokes; asthma; diabetes; dementia; obesity and; cancer.
With regards to asthma, the report states that “after years of debate there is now compelling evidence” linking air pollution with both reduced lung growth in childhood and new onset asthma in children and adults, while also increasing the severity of asthma for those with the disease already.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) sets recommended pollution limits – in several cases even stricter than EU legal limits – above which are considered unsafe. However, the RCP report states that there is in fact no level of exposure that is safe, with any exposure carrying an associated risk.
The professional medical bodies make a number of recommendations in the report, arguing that policymakers and political leaders at local, national and EU levels must “put the onus on polluters” by introducing rougher regulations, including reliable emissions testing for cars.
At a local level, the report also urges that councils are given greater power to act when pollution levels are high, so that they can close or divert roads to reduce traffic volumes “especially near schools”.
“This is not just a job for government, local authorities or business – as individuals we can all do our part to reduce pollutant exposure” – RCP’s Dr Andrew Goddard
And, as well as improving air pollution monitoring technologies to boost monitoring in urban area and near schools, the resulting information “should then be communicated proactively to the public in a clear way that everyone can understand”, according to report.
There needs to be greater understanding of the key risk factors and effects of poor air quality in homes, schools and workplaces and for the economic impact of air pollution to be better defined.
The NHS, the report argues, should “lead by example” and “no longer be a major polluter” by setting the benchmark for clean air and safer workplaces.
Dr Andrew Goddard, the RCP’s lead for the report, said: “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. This is not just a job for government, local authorities or business – as individuals we can all do our part to reduce pollutant exposure.”
Several suggestions are made for how the public can help tackle the air pollution problem while reducing their own exposure, highlighting the need for greater household energy efficiency, keeping gas appliances and solid fuel burners in good repair and better education on air quality.
Professor Jonathan Grigg of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, also urged 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”.
Commenting on the report, Lord Drayson, peer and founder of Drayson Technologies, said: “The RCP and RCPCH are right in their recommendations – we need to act now to promote active travel options like walking and cycling, provide better education on the health impacts of air pollution and deploy better monitoring technology.”