Why do we care about air pollution?

Air pollution has many varied impacts, and many can be understood through the lenses of health, climate, inequality, nature and the economy.

Health effects

Nationally, there are currently an estimated up to 36,000 early deaths every year in the UK attributable to outdoor air pollution. That is more than from obesity, or from alcohol.

Air pollution triggers strokes and heart attacks, worsens cardio-vascular and respiratory diseases including asthma, is associated with changes in the brain linked to dementia, can affect growth of the foetus and may be linked to premature birth - see the Royal College of Physicians report. It even causes lung cancer - outdoor air pollution, along with diesel exhaust and fine particle air pollution on its own, has been put in the same category for causing cancer as smoking.

The numbers of early deaths attributable to air pollution in your local area can be shocking – check out the figure from this Public Health England report (which covers every Local Authority in the UK), or contact cleanair@foe.co.uk. We can also tell you more about what the air is like where you live and whether your council meets limits on air pollution, or there is more information here [LINK].

Climate

Many of the sources of air pollution are also those for climate change – and many of the solutions tackle both. It is those which achieve a win-win for both air pollution and climate which must be pursued.

As well as significantly contributing to the air pollution crisis, transport is responsible for a massive 26% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Air pollution, in the form of Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs) directly contribute to climate change, and tackling them could help reduce the global average temperature increase by 0.5 degree Celsius.

Most vulnerable and the most affected

Air pollution is a health risk to us all. But it particularly affects the most vulnerable in society.

It's children, the elderly and people who already have health conditions who are affected the most.

Air pollution also particularly affects the most disadvantaged people who tend to live near main roads, where pollution is at its worst but positively action to tackle bad air also particularly benefits them. Research has also shown that black and ethnic minority communities are at a higher risk of suffering the effects of pollution.

Studies have also shown that children who grow up where air pollution is bad may develop with 10% less lung capacity. A joint investigation by the Guardian and Greenpeace found more than 2,000 schools and nurseries across England and Wales are close to roads with bad levels of air pollution.

But air pollution can also affect other groups – people working in certain jobs, such as those on the roadside and outdoor workers, can also be badly affected.

There’s more information here [LINK] on those most affected, and ideas of how to best work with them.  

An experiment by Kings College London showed that those in vehicles can be exposed to more air pollution than those walking or cycling the same street, although walking or cycling side streets was even better.

The economy

“The health problems resulting from exposure to air pollution have a high cost to people who suffer from illness and premature death, to our health services and to business. In the UK, these costs add up to more than £20 billion every year”, according to the Royal College of Physicians.

Nature

There are also effects on ecosystems and biodiversity and crop yields from air pollution as revealed by Plantlife.