Sarah Woolnough, Chief Executive of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, and Andy Ratcliffe, Executive Director of Programmes at Impact on Urban Health, discuss the devastating effect air pollution has on children’s health, and why poor air quality is an unacceptable example of inequality in action
If COP26 has taught us anything, it is that we must protect our health, our lungs and our environment from the damage caused by burning fossil fuels.
Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, supported by Impact on Urban Health, are demanding urgent action to protect millions of children who face a lifetime of poor health because air pollution levels in many parts of the UK are dangerously high.
Much of this harmful pollution stems from vehicle emissions, which are also fuelling the UK’s contribution to climate change.
Together we are calling on UK leaders to embrace the COP26 legacy as an opportunity to set out ambitious legally binding clean air targets in line with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2005 recommended guidelines, with commitments to meet these targets by 2030, at the latest.
A national scandal
Millions of people are forced to breathe toxic levels of air pollution every day in the UK according to WHO guidelines and we must remember there are no ‘safe levels’ to breathe.
Breathing dirty air contributes to 36,0001 premature deaths each year and places a huge burden on the NHS, with the annual cost to the UK economy a staggering £1.6 billion2.
It is an example of inequality too, with babies born in areas of social deprivation more likely to experience the devastating and potentially life-long health effects of air pollution compared to children born in areas with cleaner air.
Our newly published joint report, Clear the Air: Improving air quality to protect future generations and level up our communities highlights that 85% of people living in areas with illegal levels of pollution make up the poorest 20% of the UK population.4
Schoolchildren, particularly those from deprived and ethnic minority communities who are growing up in heavily polluted cities such as London, are amongst those who experience the greatest health burden of air pollution.
Birmingham, the second most polluted city after London, also ranked among the top ten areas with the highest proportion of deprived neighbourhoods in England.
“It’s a national scandal that air pollution is putting thousands of children at risk from the moment they take their first breath, holding them back from reaching their full potential and reducing their chances of a happy, healthy life,” says Sarah Woolnough.
Crucially, the people at greatest risk from air pollution often contribute the least to the problem.
“Children and families living in the poorest communities are carrying the burden of toxic air,” says Andy Ratcliffe, Executive Director of Programmes at Impact on Urban Health. “Those who can’t afford to own a car are the same people whose health is most hit by the toxic fumes from traffic congestion.”
“Right from the beginning, a child’s exposure to dirty air is cruelly unequal, with poorer families in less well-off neighbourhoods more at risk.”
One baby is born every two minutes into areas of dangerously high pollution…
The report found more than a quarter of a million babies each year are being born in parts of the UK where levels of air pollution fail to meet the WHO’s 2005 air quality guidelines for fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
It also revealed that over a third (35%) of maternity units and over a quarter (27%) of schools across Britain are in areas that have unsafe levels of PM 2.5.
PM2.5 particles are considered the most harmful form of air pollution to human health as they can penetrate the walls of people’s lungs, enter the bloodstream and become embedded in people’s organs. They are linked to lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and dementia.
They have even been found in the foetal side of the placentas of expectant mothers and can contribute to underdeveloped lungs in infants, lower birth weights and even premature births.
At present, 1.1 million children are receiving treatment for asthma in the UK with emerging evidence linking air pollution as a cause as well as a trigger for the condition.6 Around two-thirds of people with asthma say poor air quality makes their asthma worse, putting them at risk of a life-threatening asthma attack.
“At Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation we’re fighting for a world where everyone can breathe clean air with healthy lungs,” says Sarah Woolnough. “Just as no one should have to drink dirty water, no one should be forced to breathe dirty air.”
Access to clean air should not be dependent on where you are born or live which is why it must be an integral part of the government’s levelling-up agenda.
In addition to setting stronger clean air laws, we are also calling on the Government to:
- Invest more in public transport and active travel.
- Fund more inclusive walking and cycling schemes.
- And for public health agencies to provide clear advice for at-risk people about how to protect themselves from the effects of air pollution, as well as guidance about how people can reduce their own contributions.
“Safeguarding those most at risk from toxic air and integrating clean air planning across all areas of government must become a priority,” stresses Sarah Woolnough.
“COP26 provided a landmark opportunity to shine spotlight on the urgent action needed to protect the nation’s lungs, prevent climate breakdown and create a fairer and healthier society, free from inequality and toxic air. Together, with the right level of political ambition, we can clear the air we breathe.”
Lead the change
At Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, we believe that those most affected by air pollution – including those living in heavily built-up areas or suffering with lung or respiratory conditions – should have their voices heard. We are calling on people to share their air pollution stories to help us demand change.
- Public Health England air pollution evidence review, March 2019:
- How clean air helps the economy: https://www.blf.org.uk/take-action/clean-air/economy
- By Philippa Borrowman, Rob Day, and Harriet Edwards (2021) Clear the Air: levelling up respiratory health to protect future generations and our planet. London: Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation. https://www.blf.org.uk/sites/default/files/Clear_the_air_report_v2.pdf
- Mitchel et al (2015) Who benefits from environmental policy? An environmental justice analysis of air quality change in Britain, 2001–2011. Available at: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/10/10/105009/meta
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (2019) The English Indices of Deprivation 2019 (IoD2019). Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/835115/IoD2019_Statistical_Release.pdf
Asthma UK Website: https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/triggers/pollution/
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