RCP report highlights ‘widespread’ PM2.5 exposure

44 UK towns and cities are in breach of recommended World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) a health report published last night has suggested.

The report, which was compiled jointly by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and Lancet Countdown has called for a “comprehensive policy package” to address air pollution, including mandatory clean air zones in cities across the country.

According to the report, 44 of the 51 UK cities in the WHO’s 2016 ambient air pollution database exceeded the WHO’s recommended limit value for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) of 10μg/m3, whilst 13 exceed the PM10 limit (20μg/m3).

“Although most of these cities are within the EU annual limit values (25 and 40μg/m3 for PM2.5 and PM10, respectively), the WHO’s limits represent a safer threshold. Moreover, there is considerable cause for concern when considering the most polluted areas, nitrogen dioxide levels, and daily rather than annual limit values,” the report states.

PM2.5 is the term used to describe solid particles and liquid droplets with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometres across, and it is acknowledged as being among the air pollutants which has the greatest impact on human health.

Both short and long-term exposure to PM2.5 increase the risk of mortality from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as increased hospital admissions, studies suggest. The Committee On the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) estimates that exposure to PM2.5 attributes to 29,000 premature deaths in the UK every year.

Clean air zones

Regarding charging clean air zones, the report claims that these should be mandatory in the 27 cities ‘persistently breaching legal limits’. “However, maximising Clean Air Zones’ impact will require increased funding, as the £255 million ‘Implementation Fund’ currently committed under the plan is inadequate to the scale of the problem,” the report notes.

The report also looks at decarbonisation of the UK’s electricity system, sustainable and active transport, and health impacts of extreme weather and climate adaptation in the UK.

On the research, the RCP’s special adviser on air quality, Professor Stephen Holgate, said: “The UK is leading the way internationally on many areas of climate and health – with the recent T-charge a good example. Yet it continues to miss the glaring opportunities that can be implemented today with highly substantial benefit.

“As the RCP and Lancet Countdown research shows, climate change is here and a health issue today. More can and should be done. The benefits for an overstretched health service alone are justification, but it is clear that the benefits of action will be felt much more widely, both economically and for those most affected by air pollution.”

The RCP’s lead on sustainability, Dr Toby Hillman, added: “We know that high exposures in early life have a major effect on lung and cognitive development throughout an individual’s life – that is why it is the government’s duty to improve the air we breathe and to ensure that people across the UK are not exposed to such a preventable cause of death and illness.

“Addressing climate change and poor air quality isn’t a burden or cost, but fundamentally an opportunity we should grasp with both hands.”

City/Town Annual mean PM10 (μg/m3) Annual mean PM2.5 (μg/m3)
Belfast 18 12
Birmingham 19 14
Bristol 18 13
Cardiff 19 14
Eastbourne 21 15
Edinburgh 14 8
Glasgow 23 16
Leeds 22 15
Liverpool 14 12
London 22 15
Manchester 18 13
Middlesbrough 20 11
Newcastle upon-Tyne 13 10
Nottingham 21 12
Oxford 21 14
Southampton 21 15
Stoke-on-Trent 20 14
York 15 12