Air Pollution 'Causes 40,000 Deaths a Year'

Tim Locke

February 23, 2016

A new report on the dangers of air pollution finds it is linked to around 40,000 deaths a year in the UK.

The report, called 'Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution', comes from experts at The Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Lifelong Risks

The report looks at pollution affecting unborn babies' lung and kidney development, and the increased risk of miscarriage. In older people, pollution, increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and dementia, the report says.

At all ages, it says the risk of developing asthma, worsening asthma symptoms, diabetes, obesity and cancer increases with pollution.

As well as pollution in the air outdoors, the risk of indoor pollution from faulty boilers, appliances, smoking, moulds, fly sprays and even air fresheners is covered.

The cost of dealing with health problems due to air pollution that affect society, businesses and the NHS is estimated to be more than £20 billion a year.

There are already worldwide recommendations on 'acceptable' limits for pollutants in the air, but the report says there is no safe level of exposure, as any exposure poses some risks.

The report team was chaired by Professor Stephen Holgate from the Medical Research Council. In a statement, he says "When our patients are exposed to such a clear and avoidable cause of death, illness and disability, it is our duty to speak out."


Recommendations from the report include:

· Polluters to be made to take responsibility for harming health, with tougher regulations, and reliable emissions testing for cars

· Local authorities to have the power to close or divert roads to reduce traffic when pollution levels are high locally, especially near schools

· Better air pollution monitoring and alerts

· A better understanding of indoor air pollution and health at home, at schools and at work

· The NHS should set an example in tacking the pollution it produces and set the benchmark for clean air and safe workplaces.

The report suggests steps we can all take to play our part in lowering pollution:

· Avoid car journeys in favour of buses, trains, walking and cycling

· Having energy efficient homes

· Keeping gas appliances and other fires well maintained

· Being informed about air quality.

In December 2015, the government published an action plan for local, regional and national measures "to ensure that UK air will be cleaner than ever before." This, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said "will build on significant improvements in air quality in recent decades and fulfil our environmental responsibilities, benefit our health and make our cities better places to live and work."


Health groups and experts have issued statements reacting to the new report.

Kay Boycott, chief executive of Asthma UK, says: "Two thirds of people with asthma tell us when pollution levels are high they have to fight for breath and we see a rise in potentially life threatening asthma attacks. There is mounting evidence that pollution can cause asthma as well as making it much worse for people who already have it. We urgently need significant investment into research to find practical solutions to this invisible killer that is blighting our children's lungs."

Professor Jonathan Grigg of the Asthma UK Applied Research Centre, adds: "Air pollution isn't something we can just ignore. No level of exposure is safe so we need to find ways to avoid it. We're already conducting research to see if wearing pollution monitors helps people find and avoid pollution hotspots by planning different journeys to work and school."

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, says: "This report adds to the growing body of evidence that shows the detrimental impact that air pollution is having on the public's health.

"Our research has shown that both long-term and short-term exposure to air pollution can increase people's risk of a heart attack or stroke and worsen existing heart conditions. Using this evidence, we need to work in partnership with the Government and other health bodies to identify robust measures to tackle many of the causes of harmful air pollution including our congested roads."

Professor Ian Colbeck, professor of environmental science, University of Essex, says the 40,000 deaths used in the report is a "realistic estimate based on our current knowledge."

He adds: "People spend around 90% of their time indoors (whether at home, at work, or commuting) and this is one of the first reports which recognises the importance of indoor air quality on health. With 99,000 deaths across Europe due to indoor air pollution one would expect around 9,000 deaths in the UK. However it is extremely unlikely that any Government would try and impose air quality standards in private homes."

Professor Anthony Frew, professor of allergy & respiratory medicine, Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton, says: "While this report is interesting, its findings have to be seen in the context that on average we live longer, healthier lives than we did in previous generations, and that much of this is due to the industrial improvements that cause the pollution.

"Living has never been risk-free and we make compromises all the time between our short-term comfort and long-term health."


RCP/RCPCH: Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution

Asthma UK

Science Media Centre


Reviewed on February 23, 2016