Air Pollution and Health

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how does air pollution impact health?

Air pollution plays a pivotal role in the process of climate change. Outdoors, the range of pollutants we are exposed to are multiple and many of these come from vehicles. These pollutants include particulates (mostly from diesel engines), nitrogen oxides (exhaust gases), and ozone (from chemical reactions in the atmosphere). Many of the changes that would decrease the prevalence of air pollution and protect our health, would also help slow down the process of global warming.

The impacts of air pollution on health are extensive, with outdoor air pollution contributing to 40,000 deaths per year in the UK. There are also proven links between air pollution and cancer, asthma, heart disease, obesity and strokes (RCPCH). Cars and vans alone are responsible for 10,000 early deaths each year (UK Energy Research Centre).

Although air pollution is harmful to everyone, some people suffer more from air pollution, making air pollution also an issue of inequality. These reasons include (RCPCH):

  • Live, go to school, or work near busy roads.
  • Live in deprived areas; often poorer households are located in inner city areas with higher pollution levels.
  • Have existing medical conditions, or are more vulnerable because of their age. Harm to children and babies will have impacts into the future.

The cost of air pollution

Pollution from cars and vans costs approximately £6 billion in damage to health each year in the UK.

Health costs to the NHS from air pollution is much worse in cities. Researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Bath have found that the associated health costs of one car running on fossil fuels amount to £1640 over it's lifetime, increasing to £5,107 for a van. They also found that for a diesel car in a city, the associated health costs can be as high as £16,424.

If every new car in 2019  were electric it would save more than £325 million in health costs in the first year, according to environmental charity Global Action Plan which organises Clean Air Day.  Swapping one in four car journeys in urban areas for walking or cycling could save more than £1.1 billion in damage to health each year (Global Action Plan).

This presents an economic case for cleaning up the air we breathe.

The impacts of air pollution on children's health

Unicef reports that 4.5 million children in the UK are growing up in areas with toxic levels of pollution.

A recent report found that children breath in 30% more air pollution than adults because of their proximity to car exhaust fumes. Children's lungs are especially vulnerable given they are still developing. This higher exposure puts children at risk from lasting damage, such as asthma. The same research also found that for the children who are driven to school, the threat from air pollution is higher- they are exposed to double the pollution than they would be on the pavement.

Does your MP have an interest in children and young people? Or are they passionate about improving education? Approaching air pollution from this perspective is a good way to find common ground.

You can read a summary of the research here, where you will also find a quote from Environment Secretary Michael Gove MP.

Thermal imaging shows how children’s shorter height places them closer to passing exhaust fumes. Photograph: FLIR/Global Action Plan

Thermal imaging shows how children’s shorter height places them closer to passing exhaust fumes. Photograph: FLIR/Global Action Plan

what is already being done to tACKLE AIR POLLUTION?

In 2015, the government announced that they would phase out coal-fired power stations by 2025 and restrict their use by 2023, which is a major step forward. The UK outperformed on its second carbon budget (31% reduction by 2017) and this was mainly due to a decrease in the use of coal for electricity generation. However, the Clean Growth Strategy, published by the government in October 2017 highlights that these out-performances will be ‘carried over’ to future targets which the UK is not on track to meet. You can talk to your MP about your concern as by carrying forward these targets, the UK risks falling behind on carbon emission reductions, and losing out on the many benefits of moving towards a low carbon economy.

 Last July, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, announced that the government's “Road to Zero Strategy” would include an outright ban on petrol, diesel and certain hybrid cars by 2040. However as of June 2018, weaker language is now being used by ministers: 'the government’s “mission” is to put the UK at the forefront of design and manufacturing of zero-emission vehicles and to ensure the elimination of polluting cars from the streets by 2040.' 

Click here to learn more about what you can ask of your MP relating to climate change and health.


Date of Publication: 10.05.2018

Most recent modification: 10.07.2018