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Air pollution a ‘growing’ health issue for local authorities

Residents in London could be more susceptible to dying from diseases attributed to long-term exposure to air pollution, than people living in other local authorities across Britain, new estimates published by Public Health England (PHE) have found. 

According to the data, central estimates of mortality rates attributable to this form of pollution range from around 2.5% in some local authorities in rural areas of Scotland and Northern Ireland and between 3-5% in Wales to over 8% in London boroughs. 

The figures were calculated by modelling annual average concentrations of man-made particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter, known as PM2.5 and their impacts on health. The researchers stated that much outdoor air pollution comes from burning fuels to generate heat and electricity, and from vehicles. Therefore, measures that significantly reduce particulate air pollution or cut exposure would be regarded as important public health initiatives. 

Dr Paul Cosford, PHE’s director of health protection and medical director, said: “Policies that encourage a shift from motorised transport to walking and cycling would be expected to reduce total vehicle emissions, including particulate pollution. If this could be achieved in towns and cities, then we could expect local improvements in air quality. There would also be health benefits from increased physical activity through walking and cycling. 

“Local authorities could also consider other measures to improve air quality, such as implementing low emission strategies as well as the appropriate design of green spaces.” 

However, the report did concede that air quality has improved considerably in the UK in recent decades due to new cleaner technology and tighter environmental legislation, which have reduced emissions from industry. But, despite these improvements, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) estimated that long-term exposure to air pollution had an effect on the equivalent of 29,000 deaths a year in the UK in 2008. 

Dr Sotiris Vardoulakis, PHE’s head of air pollution and climate change, said: “The report has been produced to inform public health professionals and air quality specialists in local authorities about the likely effects of particle air pollution on public health in the UK. The estimates are intended to help local authorities consider air pollution among other public health issues.” 

Additionally, this was the first time the PHE report – Estimating Local Mortality Burdens associated with Particulate Air Pollution – has estimated the number of deaths that can be attributed to particle air pollution in all local authorities in the UK. It also builds on figures produced for the Public Health Outcomes Framework. 

(Image copyright: Lefteris Pitarakis, AP Photo) 

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