Health effects of air pollution

A unique opportunity to shape the Government’s air quality policies.

20 May 2022
4 min read

Air pollution is an urgent public health crisis and a social justice issue. We must seize this unique opportunity to tell Government to prioritise clean air.

Firstly, the bad news: 

Air pollution has devastating effects on people’s health and on our communities. It’s a cause and consequence of inequality, is the single greatest environmental threat to health, and is responsible for 36,000 deaths in the UK per year.   

Alarmingly, 97% of UK addresses are in areas that are over the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended limits for air pollution, and 3.1 million children in England attend schools that are over WHO’s recommended limits for particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). 

Air pollution enters the body through the lungs and is thought to affect every organ in the body. It causes inflammation, asthma, cardiovascular conditions, and is linked to Alzheimer’s. The more fine particulate matter pollution a person is exposed to, the more likely they are to die from cardiopulmonary heart disease or lung cancer.  

Everyone is affected by air pollution, but it’s linked with inequality. In London, children who live in areas of deprivation or who are from Black, Asian or other minoritized ethnicities are disproportionately burdened by air pollution. Meanwhile, across the UK 85% of people living in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide are in the poorest 20% of the population. 

In London, children who live in areas of deprivation or who are from Black, Asian or other minoritized ethnicities are disproportionately burdened by air pollution.

Air quality can be improved 

Now the good news. We know from our work to improve air quality in South London that change is possible.  

From ways to make construction cleaner, to working with communities to improve air quality, amazing progress is being made to find effective solutions to the air pollution crisis.  

Simply put, we know how to improve air quality. And the more a city cleans up its air, the longer the life expectancy of its inhabitants.  

So what are we waiting for?  

Government must lead the way

Addressing a public health crisis like air pollution requires leadership from Government. 

That’s why the Government’s current consultation on new air quality targets is so important. And it’s why their targets must match the ambition and action we see communities, charities and businesses taking across the country.  

The Government’s consultation on air quality proposals has been extended until the 27th June. That means more time for people and organisations to properly consider the proposals and give feedback. 

Those proposed targets fall far short of the ambition we need to make our air cleaner and our urban centres healthier. 

The Government is suggesting setting air quality limits that would allow twice as much small-particulate pollution in England as the WHO recommends as an upper limit. And they are proposing we do not meet that target until 2040.   

That’s despite research that shows reaching the WHO’s recommended guidelines across most of the UK is within our grasp by 2030 – ten years earlier than the Government is aiming for.  

That means two decades of avoidable ill health, with toxic air in our schools, our hospitals and our streets. It is an unacceptable delay. 

Every year of delay has real impact. The CBI has estimated that meeting targets similar to those proposed in this consultation, would prevent 17,000 deaths every year – and add £1.6bn to the economy annually.


Air pollution is responsible for 36,000 deaths in the UK per year.


Meeting clean air targets would add £1.6bn to the economy.


Meeting the WHO's recommended guidelines on fine particulate matter is possible by 2030.

Tell the Government to prioritise air quality

The consultation isn’t the most straightforward to respond to, so we’ve worked with our partners to create an e-tool which makes it quick and easy.  

The quality of the air we breathe affects us all, so we want as many people as possible to respond and tell policymakers why it’s so important to act decisively. Each new response puts more pressure on the Government to be more ambitious and deliver the clean air we need to narrow devastating health inequalities. 

Responding can be as quick as five minutes. We urge you to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to create healthier and fairer communities across the UK. 

This consultation has now closed.