Heart and lungs

Air pollution 'kills 40,000 a year' in the UK, says report

What is the issue?

"Air pollution is contributing to about 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK," BBC News reports.

The figures are the conclusion of a report assessing the impact of air pollution on public health in the UK. The report, published by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, discusses the lifelong impact of air pollution. It presents a number of recommendations to the public, businesses and governments to make changes and reduce air pollution.

The expert panel states: "Real change will only occur when everyone accepts this responsibility, and makes a concerted effort."

Who produced the report?

The report was produced by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and aimed to look at changes in the sources of air pollution over time, both indoors and outdoors. 

The report also looks to the future in assessing the impact of an ageing population and climate change, and the effect this has on society.

The two Royal Colleges formed a group of experts from medicine and environmental sciences to discuss current evidence, found through a search of the literature, and came up with some recommendations.

What does the report say?

The report suggests that every year in the UK, outdoor pollution is linked to around 40,000 deaths, and more with indoor pollutants.

Air pollution can have a damaging effect from when a baby is in the womb and continue throughout life to older age, playing a role in many chronic conditions such as cancer, asthma, heart disease, and neurological changes linked to dementia.

The expert panel feels the concentration limits set by the government and the World Health Organization are not safe for the whole population and leave certain groups vulnerable. The panel therefore provides a number of recommendations for action.

What did they look at?

The experts discussed:

  • changes occurring over the years in air pollution
  • composition of the air we breathe
  • effect of air pollution on early human development, including vital organs
  • effects of air pollution over a lifetime
  • identifying vulnerable groups
  • the cost of air pollution
  • how to change our future

What evidence did they find?

The report found there have been a number of factors, including legislation that has changed the composition and level of air pollution we are exposed to today. Air pollution is not a new problem in the UK, but over the years our perspective on the health risks has changed.

There had previously been a focus on pollution from solid fuel burning, such as coal – which, as a result, fell dramatically. However, this has been replaced by concerns about exposure to pollutants from transport sources, especially cars. Even the "cleanest" of engines can produce nitrogen oxides, ozone and particulates – small specks of matter, such as soot. All three may have a potentially harmful effect on health.

Evidence from the literature discussed the public health burden of air pollution and methods for better management for health improvements, cost savings and increases in quality of life.

Indoor sources of air pollution are not always considered; however, the report found a number of sources emitting a variety of substances, such as:

  • gas cookers
  • cleaning products
  • damp and mould
  • cigarette smoke
  • carbon monoxide

They concluded that indoor pollutants may cause several thousand deaths per year in the UK, and the experts felt this was an area to be studied further.

There was evidence that exposure to pollutants throughout life, from pregnancy to older age, can have lasting influences. However, the evidence of harm to unborn babies and the young child is not as strong as it is for adults.

The experts suggest this is because the topic is relatively new and has not been so heavily researched, or that the effects on the baby and child may be subtle and take longer to appear. In some cases, damage caused by exposure to pollutants in early childhood may not become apparent until adulthood.

Evidence was found to suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution is linked to:

The report also found evidence that poorer people tend to live in lower-quality environments and are more exposed to air pollution. This does not necessarily mean they are at increased risk, so long as concentrations do not exceed regulations.

What does the report recommend?

The report provides a number of recommendations for action and also further research. These are described below:

  • We are encouraged to act immediately to protect the health, wellbeing and economic sustainability for our generation and those of the future.
  • Governments are urged to work with local authorities and industry to make long-term changes.
  • Educate professionals and the public of the serious harms of air pollution.
  • Promote alternative transport to cars fuelled by petrol and diesel; this may be walking, cycling, and use of public transport or electric/hybrid cars.
  • Regulations to be put in place so that those causing the pollution are required to take responsibility for harming health. This should be at a local, national and EU level.
  • Effective monitoring of air pollution levels, ensuring that serious incidents are reported.
  • Local authorities to act in protecting public health where air pollution levels are high, this may involve road closures and other traffic control.
  • Regulators and local governments to ensure there is no inequality in exposure to pollutants between deprived and more affluent communities.
  • Protect groups that are at increased risk of health problems. This includes children, older adults, and people with chronic health problems.
  • Benchmarking for clean air and safe workplaces; that is seeking to set a gold standard for clean air and regularly checking that the standard is met.
  • Carrying out further research into the economic impact of air pollution and the benefits of tackling the issue.
  • Strengthen our understanding of the relationship between indoor air pollution and health, including the key risk factors.
  • Improve our understanding of how global social and economic trends are affecting air quality.
  • Improve air pollution monitoring through use of better technology.
  • Research into the effects of air pollution on health.

These recommendations are likely to cost the taxpayer money, but the report makes a compelling case that they will save money in the long term. 

The report's authors estimate that the adverse impact on public health caused by pollution costs the UK economy more than £20bn per year, which is just under 16% of the current annual NHS budget of around £116bn.

NHS Attribution