With every breath: a call for action on air pollution

By Natalie Stevenson

Despite ever growing evidence of the detrimental effects of air pollution has on the environment and human health, the UK Government is not doing enough to tackle the problem. A recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the UK is set to fail its pollution-tackling targets for 2030.

Air pollution is currently the single biggest environmental risk to health, accounting for an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally every year [1]. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has published clear air quality guidelines for key pollutants, including particulate matter (PM), ozone, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur oxides (SOx). Yet across the globe, 99% of the population still live in places where air pollution exceeds these guideline limits [1].

PM levels are the main indicator for air quality and pose the biggest danger to health. While particles of 10 µm in diameter or less (PM10) can reach the lungs, those with diameter of 2.5 µm (PM2.5), a twentieth of the width of a human hair, cause the most damage. These particles enter the blood stream and contribute to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Moreover, in 2019 a review of studies linking health and air pollution showed that nearly all the body’s essential systems are affected, tying pollution to stomach cancers, childhood leukaemia and dementia [2]. Nonetheless, air pollution is not cited as the direct cause of death on certificates. It took years of campaigning by the mother of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died of an asthma attack and cardiac arrest, for a coroner to accept that her death was due to illegal levels of air pollution, a global first [3].

Air pollution is currently the single biggest environmental risk to health, accounting for an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally every year.

World Health Organisation, 2021.

In the UK, the level of most air pollutants fell within the legal limits between 2010 and 2019, with one key exception, NOX [4]. Produced via the combustion of fossil fuels at high temperatures, the biggest contributor to the high levels of NOx is the transport sector. To tackle this problem, in 2018 the UK formed the Clean Air Strategy, which aimed to reduce NOx levels to within legal standards by 2030. Yet, with 8 years to go, concentrations still remain dangerously high in many areas. Those of low-income backgrounds and ethnic minorities suffer from the most exposure, with a study from the University of Leeds in 2015 showing that 85% of people living in areas with illegal levels of NO­­­x were amongst the 20% most deprived of the UK population, living within the most heavily urbanised towns and cities [5].

The disparity between rich and poor is also reflected on a global scale, with lower income and developing countries having the highest death toll due to pollution. China and India alone contributed 62% of deaths caused by PM2.5 from fossil fuel burning in 2012 [6]. In fact, 22 out of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are in India. Frequent power outages mean the population largely depends on diesel generators, and those living in slum conditions rely on burning wood, dung, and even plastic for heating and cooking. These activities release deadly fumes into the already thick smog.

Alongside the human cost, the environment also suffers. Acid rain, formed as NOX and SOX released into the atmosphere dissolve in rainwater, leads to the acidification of soils and water bodies, making them unsuitable for some wildlife. The NOx dissolved in the water can also cause eutrophication, resulting in excess nutrients and stimulating algal blooms that deplete the oxygen in the water. Like humans, both animals and plants are  also susceptible to the health impacts of prolonged exposure to air pollution, making them much more sensitive to environmental stresses. Combined with habitat loss and climate change, this accentuates the biodiversity loss we are seeing on a global scale.

Those of low-income backgrounds and ethnic minorities suffer from the most exposure, with a study from the University of Leeds in 2015 showing that 85% of people living in areas with illegal levels of NO­­­x were amongst the 20% most deprived of the UK population, living within the most heavily urbanised towns and cities.

Air pollution is intrinsically linked to climate change, such that policies tackling one issue often go hand in hand. So far, the UK Government has begun with restrictions on transport. Clean Air Zones (CAZs) have been set up in cities such as London, with charges for those who want to drive certain petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles within the zones. More cities are set to implement CAZs, but there has been resistance from some city councils; for example, in Greater Manchester they argue that the scheme would be too much of a financial burden and would still not bring their air pollution levels into compliance with guidelines.

One major move is towards electric-powered vehicles, where by 2030, the UK Government aims to end the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles, working towards meeting its Net Zero target by 2050. However, as the NAO highlighted in its report, although this will reduce tailpipe emissions, the particulates which are the biggest threat to human life will still be produced via brake pads and tyre wear. Many people also question whether the infrastructure is in place for supporting a transport sector dominated by electric vehicles, and whether the environmental cost of manufacturing weighs out the reduction in emissions on the road.

In addition, Government policies now require emissions test and scrubbers (which actively remove pollutants from exhaust fumes) in industrial processes and on vehicles, which has curbed some sources of pollution. Innovations which actively remove pollution from air, such as Rotterdam’s ‘Smog Free Tower’, or the integration of photo-catalytic materials in new buildings, may help to combat pollution that isn’t directly linked to fossil fuels, such as some agricultural practises.

Most available literature suggests policymaking as the way to tackle the issue. Stronger policies, which concentrate on transport and reduction of fossil fuels as well as the contribution of agriculture, waste management and consumerism to air pollution, require an integrated approach across multiple sectors. Yet so far, the Government’s failure on a national level suggests that creating additional policies might not be enough. Air pollution is often seen as a local issue. Individual governments implement their own policies, and often the Government only encourage, not direct, local authorities to put in place measures, such as CAZs, to reduce air pollution.

Stronger policies, which concentrate on transport and reduction of fossil fuels as well as the contribution of agriculture, waste management and consumerism to air pollution, require an integrated approach across multiple sectors.

Additionally, the nature of air pollution means that the issue spans across borders. In the 1970s, Sweden, backed by other Scandinavian countries, presented evidence to the EU that the majority of sulphur dioxide contaminating their air was from highly industrialised countries, such as the UK, France, and Germany. This spurred international collaboration, with policies implemented to restrict the use of fuels with high sulphur content and reduce the burning of coal in power plants, resulting in a decrease of emissions by 98% since 1970. It is likely that without a global effort, actions in North America, Europe, and East Asia to reduce air pollution will be counteracted by continuing increases in pollution in the global south.

The message from the NAO report is clear—without decisive action, air pollution will continue to threaten lives on a national and global scale. Raising public awareness of the dangers in every breath we take is key in adding more voices to drive the government to act, not in 8 years, but now.


References

  1. World Health Organisation. 2021. Air pollution. World Health Organisation. Accessed 30th June 2022 (https://www.who.int/health-topics/air-pollution#tab=tab_1)
  2. Shraufnagel, Dean E et al. 2019. Air Pollution and Noncommunicable Diseases: A Review by the Forum of International Respiratory Societies’ Environmental Committee, Part 1: The Damaging Effects of Air Pollution. Chest, 155(2), pp.409–416.
  3. Gardiner, B. 2021. ‘The deadly cost of dirty air’, National Geographic. April, pp. 50
  4. National Audit Office. 2022. Tackling local breaches of air quality. pp. 18. National Audit Office: London.
  5. Mitchell, G et al. 2015. Who benefits from environmental policy? An environmental justice analysis of air quality change in Britain, 2001-2011. Environmental Research Letters, Volume 10, Issue 10.
  6. Chandra, Mina et al. 2022. Air Pollution and Cognitive Impairment across the Life Course in Humans: A Systematic Review with Specific Focus on Income Level of Study Area. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(3), p.1405.

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