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Health effects of air pollution

Clear the air in 2022 to make the UK healthier and fairer

11 January 2022
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4 min read

Andy Ratcliffe shares how policymakers can seize on opportunities to improve air quality and make the UK a fairer society for everyone.

Air pollution is the single greatest environmental threat to human health. In the UK, the highest burden falls onto people who are already severely affected by inequality. But there is hope. Andy Ratcliffe shares how, in the wake of COP26, policymakers can seize on opportunities to improve air quality and make the UK a fairer society for everyone.

This article was originally published in print form in The House Magazine on January 10th 2022.

The devastating effects of air pollution

The air in our cities is making us sick, and it’s hitting the most vulnerable people hardest.

Air pollution has devastating effects. Every year, it contributes to 36,000 early deaths in the UK. And evidence suggests exposure increases risk of being hospitalised with COVID-19.

Those effects are unequal. In our cities, children are exposed to more poisonous air if their families are living on low incomes; or if they come from a Black, Asian, or other minoritised ethnicity.

85% of people living in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide are in the poorest 20% of the population. Many people who can’t afford a car are the same people whose health is most affected by toxic fumes from traffic.

Children are exposed to more poisonous air if their families are living on low incomes; or if they come from a Black, Asian, or other minoritised ethnicity.

It’s unacceptable that a person’s circumstances and background determine the quality of the air they breathe. But the truth is we’ve sleepwalked into a situation where the burden of poisonous air is felt by those whose health is most susceptible. Children, older people, people with health conditions, and people in lower-income communities are all more vulnerable.

Therefore, if Government intends to tackle disparities and improve public health following the pandemic, it must prioritise air quality in its levelling up agenda.

Improving air quality for everyone

All health interventions need to start with a simple action: listening. When considering new legal limits for air pollution in spring, Government must reach out to people whose lives are affected by poor air quality.

We’ve been amplifying those voices, supporting the Clear the Air campaign with our partners Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation. Later this year, those affected by air pollution will join us at an event in Parliament. Most importantly, we’ll be sharing their stories as targets are set.

There are no safe levels of air pollution. However, by setting more ambitious air quality targets, policymakers can improve lives by:

  • Preventing 17,000 premature deaths from respiratory diseases per year
  • Saving three million working days by reducing sickness
  • Adding £1.6 billion per year to the economy.

Setting more ambitious targets could result in:

17,000

premature deaths from respiratory diseases being prevented

3m

working days saved by reducing sickness

£1.6bn

added to the economy every year

Following target-setting for the Environment Act, Government will review the 2019 Clean Air Strategy. This can further define the action needed to reduce pollution.

Making the UK a fairer place

In sum: policymakers must ensure that a transition to a low-emission society works for lower-income communities and addresses health inequalities. For example, public transport must be accessible and affordable for everyone.

Government can improve air quality equitably, in ways that have wider benefits for health and the economy. Firstly, by listening to the people who are most affected. Secondly, by expanding clean air zones, and thirdly, by improving funding for active travel. This year, there is a unique opportunity to put those ideas into practice and make the UK a healthier, fairer place.