The harm caused by air pollution is huge, we need to act now

RCP special adviser on air quality, Professor Stephen Holgate, explains why London's Ultra-Low Emission Zone is a bold step towards eradicating harm caused by air pollution.

You may have seen signs going up for ULEZ around London as you go about your daily life in the city. The Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will come into force in central London from Monday 8 April. From then on, all vehicles that travel in this area will have to meet more stringent emission standards or pay a daily charge. Eventually the Greater London authority intends to extend the boundary of the ULEZ from central London to all of the inner London area bounded by the North and South Circular roads.

This radical move will drive down road traffic and improve air quality for some of the thousands of Londoners who spend their day to day lives breathing polluted air.

Breathing polluted air has devastating consequences, although they might not be obvious straight away. Road traffic releases harmful gases and particulate matter into the air which is breathed in by those nearby, entering their lungs and bloodstream. 

Everyone is affected by air pollution, but the effects are felt unevenly with  those living in deprived areas likely to encounter higher levels of air pollution, and live learn or work near busy roads

Professor Stephen Holgate, RCP special adviser on Air Quality

Everyone is affected by air pollution, but the effects are felt unevenly with  those living in deprived areas likely to encounter higher levels of air pollution, and live learn or work near busy roads. 

Neither the concentration limits set by government nor the World Health Organisation’s air quality guidelines define levels of exposure that are entirely safe for the whole population, and even these limits are routinely breached on UK roads, especially in urban areas like London. However we’ve got to start somewhere and the ULEZ zone helps us on this journey.

According to Unicef, 86% of UK children are breathing dangerous levels of toxic air.

The damage caused by air pollution affects people at all stages of life, from a baby’s first weeks in the womb to the later years of older age. The annual mortality burden in the UK from exposure to outdoor air pollution is equivalent to around 40,000 deaths.

Air pollution is a known cause of lung cancer according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. There is also a connection between air pollution and heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and changes in the brain linked to dementia. More research is needed into the extent of these links, but it is clear that we need to act now if we want to have a hope of delivering vital health benefits to those that need it most.

This is why I applaud innovative policy approaches like the ULEZ. Politicians and policymakers need to be bold and take large swings at tackling air pollution; there simply isn’t time to waste.

Professor Stephen Holgate is the RCP special adviser on air quality and chaired the working party report ‘Every Breathe we Take’. He is also the Medical Research Council clinical professor of immunopharmacology and honorary consultant physician within medicine at the University of Southampton.