London air pollution, via Istock

Reducing air pollution: We can and should go further

England’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Professor Chris Whitty has issued a damning indictment over the UK’s climate maintenance as he stated “We can and should go further – and it is technically possible to do so” in his annual report published on Thursday 8th December.

The report has highlighted the improvements made to outdoor air pollution, whilst offering solutions to continue progress. Whilst it is evident that air pollution has depleted significantly since the 1980’s, it does still pose a major health threat to the population as it has links to increasing heart disease, stroke, lung disease, cancer, and asthma exacerbation. In extreme cases it has also been linked to the lung development within children.

The CMO’s recommendations on outdoor air pollution include:

  • accelerating the electrification of light vehicles and public transport
  • innovation to reduce air pollution from non-exhaust sources such as tyres, and the need for a greater range of options for reducing air pollution from heavy and specialised vehicles
  • local urban planning should support reducing air pollution locally – such as reducing air pollution near schools and healthcare settings
  • in agriculture, ammonia air pollution emissions could be reduced through modified farming practices, such as applying slurry directly to soil
  • the NHS has committed to halving its contribution to poor air quality within a decade

The report indicates that indoor air pollution is becoming an increasing proportion of the overall problem as outdoor air pollution improves. According to the report findings, people will spend around 80% of their time indoors whether it be for work, study or leisure. Many of these indoor spaces are available to the public and people are not able to choose whom they are spending time around.

For indoor air pollution, the CMO’s recommendations include:

  • addressing a major engineering challenge – ensuring effective ventilation while minimising energy use and heat loss. This is a priority for reducing indoor air pollution while achieving net zero carbon
  • increased research into tackling indoor air pollution including finding ways to reduce sources of indoor air pollution

Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer, said:

“Everyone is affected by air pollution, and it is everyone’s problem.

“Air pollution has improved and will continue improving provided we are active in tackling it. We can and should go further – and it is technically possible to do so.”

The CMO’s report includes a chapter with case studies of 3 cities in England – Birmingham, Bradford and London, with each city having significant challenges with air pollution whilst taking slightly differing approaches to tackle it. These methods have included integrating actions including around transport, urban planning and design, reducing pollution around schools and monitoring at a city level. 

Sarah Woolnough, Chief Executive of Asthma + Lung UK said:

“This report by the CMO should act as a rallying call to tackle air pollution. From our very first breath, air pollution has a significant impact on our health. Toxic air not only puts people at risk of potentially life-threatening asthma attacks and dangerous COPD flare-ups, it can also lead to the development of lung conditions including lung cancer.

“Chris Whitty is right to highlight the devastating impacts of air pollution and it is now vital that meaningful steps are taken to protect public health from this invisible threat. This includes schemes that work to get the most polluting vehicles off our roads.”

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