Health effects of air pollution

Combating the health effects of poor air quality

24 September 2019
4 min read

Poor air quality is one the key environmental factors that drives poor health in cities. Programme Director Kate Langford discusses how we're learning from others both locally and internationally to help improve air quality in London.

Kate Langford
Kate Langford
Programme Director

The issue of air pollution in cities

According to the latest data available, over two million people in London live in areas that exceed the legal limits for nitrogen oxides (a pollutant associated with vehicle emissions). There is growing evidence linking pollutants common in cities to poor health across a person’s life course.

As I take on my new role as Programme Director on the health effects of air pollution, I’ve learnt that, like many health issues, poor air quality disproportionally affects people living in inner-city areas with high levels of deprivation.

We want to understand how air pollution affects people at a local level and will look to others for inspiration and ideas in an attempt to address one of key environmental factors that drives poor health in cities. It’s an exciting development for our work in urban health.

Learning from others taking action

Since starting my role earlier this month, I’ve noticed that air pollution can often be seen as an inevitable part of living in a major city.  We know from work happening that this does not have to be the case. It is a problem that can be addressed.

The Clean Air Fund is an international collaboration to tackle air pollution, speed up decarbonisation and improve health. We’re excited about partnering with the Fund to help us learn with others, and to influence policy change.

Over the last seven years, Paris has applied ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ policies including a low emission zone, investment in cycling infrastructure and windscreen stickers that state how polluting vehicles are. Shenzhen in China was one of the first major cities to roll out an all electric bus fleet.

Barcelona has created ‘superblocks’ with restricted vehicle speeds and priority given to pedestrians and cyclists. Superblocks are expected to prevent around 700 premature deaths a year.

Closer to home, there’s lots that we can learn from other London boroughs too. Hackney, in east London, is leading one of the largest pilots of School Streets. Roads near schools are closed at the start and end of the day to encourage children and parents to walk to and from school.

Walthamstow in the north east of the capital, has invested £30 million in cycling infrastructure and to pedestrianise main roads to create a “mini-Holland” that encourages walking and cycling.

We are also excited by the energy for change in our boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. Mums for Lungs is a campaigning group set up by parents in Lambeth to campaign for improvements in air quality. Last week I visited Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust’s new centre on the outskirts of London which will merge 90% of their 36,000 truck deliveries going to their two inner-city hospitals.


The opportunity in London

There’s an exciting opportunity to learn from those taking action, and to work with others to make Lambeth and Southwark, and London, an international exemplar for how you address the health effects of air pollution in an urban environment. London has strong political leadership and an established infrastructure to track air quality. The Mayor’s ambition is for London to have the best air quality of any major city around the world by 2050.

From 2021 the Ultra-Low Emission Zone will cover most of the capital. The London Air Quality Network has been monitoring air quality since 1993 and Breathe London is testing low-cost sensors that can provide hyperlocal air pollution data.

The conditions are right for partners to come together and act. This won’t be easy – there’s a lot we need to learn about the hyperlocal patterns of air pollution, how poor air quality interacts with other risk factors and what we can do about it.

We also know very little about how people interact with and move about the place they live, and ways in which this can be influenced to reduce exposure to air pollution. That’s why we are approaching our programme to address poor air quality as an innovation challenge – where we will test and learn by doing.

We’ll be learning from research projects to inform where we focus our energy over the coming years. The findings will help us to understand how people living in diverse, inner-city areas like Lambeth and Southwark are affected by air pollution and what interventions could be most effective.  We’ll be sharing the insights from this research.

We’re keen to talk to organisations and people who we can learn from and work with. If you’re working to tackle this issue in another urban area, are developing and testing new interventions or live in our boroughs and would like to get involved, please do get in touch.