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

Fareham Community Hospital in Salisbury Green

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"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."

The Royal College of Physicians recommends six steps you can take to tackle the problem of air pollution:

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.

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.

The experts discussed:

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:

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.

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

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.