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Ensuring future generations have healthy lungs for life

Professor Stephen Holgate, special adviser on air quality to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and chair of the European Respiratory Society’s Science Council and Executive Team, reflects on the latest evidence on the impact of air pollution on health and what individuals can do to protect themselves from the harms of air pollution.

This week I will be taking part in the European Respiratory Society (ERS) International Congress in London. The congress brings together respiratory physicians, scientists and allied health professionals working in the field of respiratory health to share the latest research findings as we work towards a common goal of improving respiratory health.

Healthy lungs for life

The congress is also the driving force behind the Healthy Lungs for Life campaign, run by the European Lung Foundation (ELF) and supported by the RCP. The theme for this year’s campaign is ‘breathe clean air’. There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the devastating impact air pollution has not just on lung health but on many other aspects of health.

Growing up in Manchester I can remember the smogs and the impact this had on people’s health.

Professor Stephen Holgate, special adviser on air quality to the Royal College of Physicians

We know that air pollution causes and exacerbates many chronic conditions, increasing strokes and heart attacks in susceptible individuals. Air pollution also adversely affects the development of the fetus. And now there is compelling evidence that air pollution is:

  • associated with new onset asthma in children and adults
  • contributing to diabetes
  • a risk factor for lung cancer.

These findings were highlighted in the RCP and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s 2016 report Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution.

Action not words

More must be done to clean up our air and ensure that future generations do not have to suffer from the devastating consequences of breathing polluted air. Growing up in Manchester I can remember the smogs and the impact this had on people’s health. Back then governments were less inclined to take action but the Clean Air Act of 1956 changed all this. The Act sought to control pollution in cities across the country by introducing smokeless zones. In these areas, smokeless fuels had to be burnt.

Since the Clean Air Act of 1956, successive governments have introduced legislation to control air pollution. Nevertheless, as the RCP’s report starkly highlights, around 40,000 deaths a year are linked to outdoor air pollution with further deaths if indoor air pollution is also taken into account. Furthermore, the harm from air pollution is not just linked to short term episodes but is a long term problem with lifelong implications. The issue has clearly not been resolved. If the deaths of 40,000 people were linked to contaminated water then there would quite rightly be a public outcry and subsequent action taken to tackle the problem. The same must be done to tackle the burden of ill health and death caused by outdoor and indoor air pollution.

Many people in the UK are currently exposed to illegal levels of outdoor air pollution. Cleaning up the air we breathe will dramatically improve the lives of people with asthma and other chronic diseases. As a respiratory physician, I believe that when patients are exposed to such a clear and avoidable cause of death, illness and disability, it is our duty as physicians to speak out and this is what we will be doing at the international congress this week.

How you can take control of the air you breathe

Although we have little control over the air that we breathe, learning more about the quality of air and its impact can help people to find the best way to protect themselves. This is why the RCP is supporting the ELF’s Healthy Lungs for Life campaign which aims to speak not only to those already affected by lung conditions, in order to improve their quality of life, but also to those who may be affected in the future.

The ELF will be hosting public events across London throughout September. This includes free lung function testing events and opportunities to speak to representatives from the ELF, the British Lung Foundation and Asthma UK to get information on lung health and air pollution. The RCP will also host a free event where members of the public can learn about how air quality impacts our lung health and hear about the latest research in the field.


For more information please email Methela Haque, RCP public affairs adviser: methela.haque@rcplondon.ac.uk.