Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution

This report from the RCP and the RCPCH examines the impact of exposure to air pollution across the course of a lifetime.

The report starkly sets out the dangerous impact air pollution is currently having on our nation’s health. Each year in the UK, around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution which plays a role in many of the major health challenges of our day. It has been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and changes linked to dementia. 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.

The report also highlights the often overlooked section of our environment - that of indoor space. Factors such as, kitchen products, faulty boilers, open fires, fly sprays and air fresheners, all of which can cause poor air quality in our homes, workspaces and schools.

As a result the report offers a number of major reform proposals setting out what must be done if we are to tackle the problem of air pollution.

These include:

  • Put the onus on polluters. Polluters must be required to take responsibility for harming our health. Political leaders at a local, national and EU level must introduce tougher regulations, including reliable emissions testing for cars.
  • Local authorities need to act to protect public health when air pollution levels are high. When these limits are exceeded, local authorities must have the power to close or divert roads to reduce the volume of traffic, especially near schools.
  • Monitor air pollution effectively. Air pollution monitoring by central and local government must track exposure to harmful pollutants in major urban areas and near schools. These results should then be communicated proactively to the public in a clear way that everyone can understand.
  • Quantify the relationship between indoor air pollution and health. We must strengthen our understanding of the key risk factors and effects of poor our quality in our homes, schools and workplaces. A coordinated effort is required to develop and apply any necessary policy changes.    
  • Define the economic impact of air pollution. Air pollution damages not only our physical health, but also our economic wellbeing. We need further research into the economic benefits of well designed policies to tackle it.
  • Lead by example within the NHS. The health service must no longer be a major polluter; it must lead by example and set the benchmark for clean air and safe workplaces.

The report also emphasises how the public can do their part to reduce pollutant exposure. Noting the impact collective action can have on the future levels of air pollution in our communities.

Suggestions include:

  • trying alternatives to car travel or preferably taking the active option: bus, train, walking and cycling
  • aiming for energy efficiency in our homes
  • keeping gas appliances and solid fuel burners in good repair
  • learning more about air quality and staying informed.

As part of this work the RCP has created '6 steps to breathing better air' for the general public:

B e aware of the air quality where you live

R eplace old gas appliances in your home

E nsure you have an energy efficient home

A lter how you travel. Take the active travel option: bus, train, walking and cycling

T alk to your MP

H arness technology to stay informed and monitor air pollution effectively   

Gary Fuller, senior lecturer in air quality measurement Kings College London and working party member, talks about the report
Working party chair Stephen Holgate, University of Southampton Faculty of Medicine, on why the report has been published.