Air Pollution and our Changing world

In the UK Air pollution is not a new problem that has surfaced overnight. The London smog of 1952 killed 12,000 people. Since then, changes in the way we live have also changed the type of air pollution that we breathe. Coal burning has fallen dramatically, but today increased road transport and the failure to control some exhausts from diesel vehicles has led to us being exposed to new air pollutants.

Around the world, there are many examples where reducing air pollution has improved public health. It now seems likely that childhood exposure to air pollution has a lasting influence on health, so the gains from tackling air pollution today will be felt throughout the decades to come.

Key facts

In 2012, road traffic in the UK was ten times higher than in 1949. Total distance walked each year decreased by 30% between 1995 and 2013.

  • Growth in pollution has not always been as fast as growth in traffic, thanks to tighter exhaust controls. Modern cars produce very little carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, and the sulphur and lead in diesel and petrol must meet tight regulations.
  • Nitrogen dioxide and particulates from diesel engines have been poorly controlled and these remain a problem. In the UK today, about half of cars run on diesel. This is the trend across Europe, but not in the USA or Japan. Nearly all buses, vans and lorries, forms of water transport, and many trains, use diesel in the UK, along with construction and farm machinery.
  • Each year, inhaling particulates causes around 29,000 deaths in the UK, which, on recent evidence, may rise to around 40,000 deaths when also considering nitrogen dioxide exposure.
  • Air pollution can stay around for days or weeks after it’s created. One type of chemical may interact with others in the atmosphere, to cause even more pollution. Air pollution also crosses cities, counties and even countries, so local action is not enough on its own.

Reproduced from: Royal College of Physicians. Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution. Report of a working party – 20-page summary document. London: RCP, 2016.

Copyright © 2016 Royal College of Physicians. Reproduced with permission.

WHO report finds ‘unhealthy environments’ kill 12.6 million people each year

Camfil UK: 21/03/2016 – The World Health Organisation (WHO) have estimated that 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment in 2012 – nearly 1 in 4 of total global deaths, according to new estimates. Air pollution amounts to as much as 8.2 million of these deaths.

air pollutionThe Report, “Preventing disease through healthy environments: a global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks”, reveals that deaths due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), mostly attributable to air pollution (including exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke), amount to 8.2 million of these deaths. NCDs, such as stroke, heart disease, cancers and chronic respiratory disease, now amount to nearly two-thirds of the total deaths caused by unhealthy environments. Continue reading

Every breath we take – the life cycle cost of air pollution

New report released in the UK

A new report issued by the Royal College of Physicians states that the health impact of Britain’s air pollution is far more serious than previously thought. It states that UK air pollution is the cause of up to 40,000 premature deaths a year. The report also concludes that in addition to the negative effects on health, air pollution also creates very high costs for society and business.

The report highlights the fact that air pollution causes damage throughout lifetime, from a baby’s first weeks in the womb all the way through to old age. For example, lung function naturally develops throughout childhood, now there is clear evidence that long-term exposure to outdoor air pollution suppresses this process. Air pollution is also linked to the development of asthma and cardiovascular diseases in adults (heart disease and strokes). The most vulnerable groups include people in low income areas, those with other health issues such as obesity, heart and lung conditions as well as the elderly and the young.

The report presents an historical overview of air pollution. The London smog of 1952 also referred to as the “Big Smoke” killed 12,000 people. Today’s older generations who were brought up in the 1940s-1950s were exposed to soot and sulphur dioxide from coal burning, in the 1960s-1980s carbon monoxide and emissions from leaded petrol were the pollutants of concern. Today’s children inhale nitrogen dioxide and sub-micron particles, so called PM1 from diesel-fueled vehicles.

air pollution

The fact that air pollution and climate change are intertwined is also underscored in the report. In other words, many strategies to decrease air pollution are also effective in slowing down climate change. One way to achieve these dual goals is to use energy more efficiently. Continue reading