Air Pollution: A global crisis or a problem solved?
15th October 2016
In the run up to Healthy City Week 2016, we’ll be showcasing innovative ideas and highlighting key topics to explore wellbeing that doesn’t cost the earth.
This blog from Dr Ben Williams and Professor James Longhurst, Air Quality Management Resource Centre, University of the West of England reflects on Air Pollution: A global crisis or a problem solved?
It has been 60 years since the inception of the Clean Air Act, introduced to address the growing public health crisis that industrial and domestic coal burning was imposing on citizens throughout the UK. The development of the Act was instigated by the Great London Smog of 1952 which caused the premature deaths of at least 4,000 people at that time and many thousands more through the longer term effects of the smog. The Act was championed in parliament by Gerald Nabarro MP who also proposed a Private Members Bill to address the problem.
In 1953 the Beaver Committee was established to “examine the nature, causes and effects of air pollution and the efficacy of present preventative measures; to consider what further measures are practicable; and to make recommendations for action by government.” The Committee’s recommendations suggested the creation of a policy framework for clean air and an act to cover domestic and industrial emissions of smoke from new and existing premises. This act and the subsequent act in 1968 changed the state of air quality in the UK from one of soot laden smoggy landscapes to that of relatively clear skies. Today, the challenge lies primarily with vehicle emissions and if we are to address them we will require steps that are equally as bold as those of the 1950s.
Ambient air pollution and diesel exhaust emissions are carcinogenic
Air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk globally. In 2012 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that diesel engine exhaust causes cancer in humans and a year later the IARC classified outdoor air pollution similarly. Both are Class 1 cancer-causing agents and are considered as bad for our health as exposure to asbestos, tobacco smoke and ultraviolet radiation.
According to the WHO around 7 million people died as a result of air pollution in 2012, equivalent to one in eight of total global deaths and 3.7 million of these deaths were attributable specifically to outdoor air pollution. In Europe, the WHO estimated that about 500,000 people die prematurely as a result of air pollution every year. In the UK ca. 40,000 people die as a result of it, primarily as a result of exposure to NO2 and PM2.5. Within Bristol itself, 188 deaths were attributed to air pollution, compared to only 9 from road traffic incidents.
Air pollution does not affect everyone equally, disproportionately affecting children and the elderly, as well as those with existing health conditions. The poorest in society also suffer the most whilst contributing least to the problem. Clearly, air pollution has a significant impact on human health and laws have been introduced over the years to drive down concentrations nationwide.
In 1987, the World Health Organisation set health based guidelines for particulate matter, NO2, ozone and sulphur dioxide, amongst others. Based on the WHO health based guidelines, the EU Air Quality Framework Directive and subsequent Directives were developed which Member States were required to convert into national law by 1998.
The EU limit value for NO2 was to be achieved by 1st January 2010, however, UK remains non-compliant in many areas. After being taken to court for non-compliance by activist lawyers ClientEarth, the UK government was ordered by the Supreme Court in April 2015 to draw up new air quality plans to address air pollution in the UK. The air quality plans were submitted to the European Commission in December 2015 (and we are still awaiting a response), however the consensus across the air quality profession was that these plans are not sufficient to address the public health challenge in as short a time as possible. So if our government won’t take it seriously enough, what can we do?
A way forward
We shouldn’t consider reducing air pollution as another regulation to be suffered, it should be considered as an opportunity to improve our health and wellbeing. Cars don’t cause air pollution, we do by driving them, and consequently any solution will come from a change in our habits. By substituting car use if and when possible with a bus journey, or preferably by walking or cycling we not only reduce air pollution but improve our health and wellbeing, and reduce the number of cars on the road. Other strategies to avoid higher levels of exposure to air pollution include walking and cycling along less busy traffic routes and travelling outside peak hours. While difficult, these are the decisions we must make.
During the 11th and 12th of October over 150 delegates attended the Routes to Clean Air conference in Bristol and discussed the challenges and opportunities we face in addressing the air pollution crisis. It was clear from the presentations at the RTCA conference that we have plenty of evidence on the impacts of air pollution however the statutory measures to address it are weak and enforcement is lacking. We, the Air Quality Management Resource Centre, call for a new Clean Air Act, equally ambitious as the first 60 years ago, enshrining our right to breathe clean air within national legislation. Other organisations are leading the call, including Environmental Protection UK, the world’s oldest environmental pressure group who were themselves instrumental in the creation of the 1956 Clean Air Act.
As a society we have come a long way since 1956, but we have further to go. We expect our food to be safe, our water to be clean and without a shadow of a doubt we should demand the same of our air.
Interested in discussing or learning more about air quality? Head to these events during Healthy City Week…
- Public Health, Bristol City Council: Putting health in all policies & making prevention everyone’s business. Monday 17th 2–4.30pm (Registration from 1.45pm) Conference Room, City Hall. Free, book online
A healthy city is one where public bodies have ‘health in all policies’ allowing all residents access to healthy, long, fulfilling lives – policies which address the wider determinants of health such as housing, education, work, transport, food, air and water quality. This event will be led by the Director of Public Health, Becky Pollard, with speakers from Public Health England. It will bring together policymakers, decision-takers and neighbourhood representatives in a masterclass and launch a toolkit which can help embed health into all policies.
- Sustrans hosts a panel debate to explore: Should our transport system be considered a public health issue? Wednesday 19th 2.30–5pm. Free, book online
Sustrans host a panel debate looking at the impact our transport system has on the health of the city. The panel will present on their specialist topics and includes Dr Adrian Davis, Cllr Mark Bradshaw, Mike Harris, James Durie and Zoe Banks-Gross. Questions from the
audience will be chaired by Martin Booth, Editor of Bristol 24/7.
- Formal Launch of the Bristol Urban ID Project University of Bristol, University of the West of England, Bristol City Council, South Gloucestershire Council, Bristol Health Partners, Bristol Green Capital Partnership. Wednesday 19th 5–7pm | Watershed. Free, book online
How do we enhance citizen health and happiness? How can we create a Carbon Neutral City by 2050? How can we improve transport and access to services? How can we make the city truly inclusive and deliver equality? This session will formally launch the Bristol Urban ID project, bringing together stakeholders from the Bristol urban area to address dilemmas and issues in urban living. With keynotes speakers, an opportunity to join the debate and help shape this project.