Health effects of air pollution

Reflections on London’s Clean Air and Health Summit

21 February 2022
4 min read

The Mayor of London, Government and leaders across healthcare agree: air pollution is a social justice issue. But how can we fix it?

Kate Langford
Kate Langford
Programme Director

What happens when leaders across Government and healthcare get in a room to focus on solutions to the single greatest environmental threat to health, air pollution? Yesterday, I was lucky enough to find out.  

I was invited to join the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, at London’s Clean Air and Health Summit to discuss what action the health sector could take to improve air quality. 

The summit followed last year’s publication of the Coroner’s Prevention of Future Deaths report into the tragic death of Ella Kissi Debrah. The report urged the Government and the healthcare system to be more proactive in raising awareness of the devastating health effects of air pollution and recommended healthcare professionals be trained in talking to their patients about the dangers of poor air quality. 


It was encouraging to see leaders across public health taking air pollution seriously and I had three reflections on the discussions: 

1) This problem is solvable

During Chris Whitty’s opening remarks he stressed that, while air pollution is a major health issue, it is solvable. Seeing the energy in the room, I couldn’t help but feel that not only is this issue solvable, but that major change is on the horizon.  

The summit brought together leaders from across the healthcare sector: Royal colleges, directors of public health, the UK Health Security Agency, GPs and powerful advocates for change like Rosamund Adoo Kissi Debrah. And while summits can sometimes feel like there’s too much talk and too little action, my sense was that attendees were genuinely committed to playing their part, whether that meant incorporating air pollution into the medical curriculum or developing patient-facing information about the risks of air pollution.  

2) We can learn from the pandemic

One of the discussions was how public health services can inform the public – particularly at-risk groups like children, older people, people with lung and heart conditions, and those in lower-income communities – about the threat of air pollution.  

The above point is crucial: Air pollution is a social justice issue. Whereas poor air quality has devastating effects on everyone’s health, it doesn’t affect people equally. It’s often those who contribute the least to the problem who are most affected by it. Recognising this is one of the first steps to tailoring effective public health communications on air pollution and this is one of the reasons I was so encouraged by the Mayor of London’s comments during the day. 

The Mayor of London, Government and leaders across healthcare agree: air pollution is a social justice issue. But how can we fix it?

It’s also why I was interested in Professor Kevin Fenton’s remarks about what we can learn about public health communications from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

When we talk about informing people of the health risks of air pollution, we still tend to think about a small number of standard routes, such as relying on information from doctors, alerts through text services and campaigns run by central government.  

During the pandemic we’ve learnt these traditional approaches often don’t reach those most likely to experience health inequalities, like air pollution. More work needs to be done to understand how those most impacted feel about the issues and about potential solutions. 

For example, with AirText, a text-alert service that warns people about dangerously high levels of pollution, we saw that only 319 people living in Southwark signed up, despite there being over 18,000 people with known respiratory conditions in the borough. 

For public health communications about air pollution to be effective, we need to understand more about the communities that are most susceptible to the health effects of air pollution and design services collaboratively with them, tailored to them. 

That could mean more visible and accessible information about air pollution in public spaces and we’re working with Imperial College London to find low-cost ways of doing this. It also means learning from more creative approaches, like the work the musician Love Ssega has done in Lewisham to raise awareness in and around the South Circular.  

3) The health sector can’t be solely responsible for improving air quality, but it can role model for others

It was exciting to see leadership from so many in the health sector who have not been as vocal on this issue in the past. But addressing air pollution cannot and should not be the sole responsibility of the health sector. We need joined-up action from central and local government, businesses and communities.  

However, in our boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, we’ve seen the powerful example that the health sector can set as a role model, demonstrating what actions large organisations should take to improve air quality. 

Our partners at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust have been leading the way – from setting up a consolidation hub that has reduced van deliveries to their central London sites by up to 90%, to working with staff to help them to switch to lower emission ways to travel around the area. The NHS can be a powerful role model for others.  

Our Health effects of air pollution programme will continue to fund partnerships with businesses, communities and local government to test ways to improve air quality for those who are most affected.