Public health cannot wait until 2040, say health leaders

The medical royal colleges and the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change have responded to the UK government's plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations.

Professor Stephen Holgate, special adviser on air quality to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), said:

The government has taken some positive steps to address air pollution and climate change, including the planned phase-out of coal power stations, but this latest plan is still clearly inadequate. Banning the sales of diesel and petrol cars by 2040 will deliver important public health benefits, but is only one part of the response required to protect our patients from toxic fumes and help meet our climate change commitments. 

There is clear evidence to suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution has a wide range of adverse effects across the lifetime. Exposure during early life can lead to the development of serious conditions such as asthma and increases the likelihood of strokes and heart attacks in susceptible individuals. Emerging evidence also suggests links between exposure to air pollution and type 2 diabetes, obesity and dementia.

Annually, air pollution across the UK is linked to an estimated 40,000 early deaths and affects the daily lives of millions of people who have no choice but to breathe dirty air. It is therefore the government’s duty to ensure that people across the UK are not exposed to such a preventable cause of death and illness.

The new air quality plan published by the government does not go far enough to cut pollution, not only to meet legal limits but to deliver maximum health and environmental benefits. To improve air quality in UK towns and cities, it is essential that the government issues a clear mandate for additional cities to implement clean air zones and provide support for local action by providing the adequate tools and resources to facilitate local action.

Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said:

Air pollution is a public health emergency, with indisputable evidence demonstrating the tragic effects it has on the development of the lungs and hearts of children, and the government is right to point to air pollution as the largest environmental health risk in the UK.

Having been told to go back to the drawing board so many times, that the government’s final air quality plan still lacks sufficiently strong measures to clean our air is frankly inexcusable. Whilst this represents a first step in tackling air pollution, there is clearly more work to do.

The government’s own analysis shows that clean air zones, such as London’s low emission zone, are the most effective way to tackle the problem and yet the plan does not mandate their expansion. For the sake of children’s health, we must roll out clean air zones in the 27 parts of the country that are still breaching air quality limits.

Notes to editors

Spokespeople are available for interviews upon request. Please contact Pauline Castres, policy and communications officer at the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change:

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change brings together the UK’s main health institutions, including the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Last year, the two colleges published Every breath we take, a report which highlighted that each year in the UK 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution.