No safe level: how air pollution is damaging the health of the population, how the health sector can respond to pollution, and what to do about it
Larissa Lockwood, Global Action Plan, opened up the event and wished everyone a Happy Clean Air Day. She added that the main theme of this year’s Clean Air Day is “Air pollution dirties every organ in your body. Take steps to improve your health this Clean Air Day.”
Geraint Davies MP, Chair of the APPG, said that we need to urge the Government to be more ambitious in meeting the various air quality targets, in particular WHO-10 for PM2.5 by 2030 as opposed to 2040. He added that air pollution causes around 62,000 deaths a year and costs £20 billion a year to the economy in the UK. He said that renewable energy had a vital role to play in reducing air pollution and would be especially important during peak times for energy consumption.
Prof Stephen Holgate, University of Southampton and UK Clean Air Champion, highlighted some of the new areas of research in air pollution and human health. In addition to lungs and the cardiovascular system, air pollution has an effect on every single organ of the body and he described it as the most serious environmental issue for health. He referenced the WHO revised figures from September 2021 and the need to focus attention on human health.
Dr Mark Miller, University of Edinburgh, spoke about the impacts of air pollution on the cardiovascular system. He shared the Six Cities Study where six cities in America had similar demographics, but different levels of air pollution. The studies showed a clear link between the amount of particles in the air and the risk of dying of lung and heart disease. He added that there were more than 4.5 million deaths linked to outdoor air pollution and 7-9 million premature deaths every year due to air pollution across the world. He added that if you’re elderly or you have a health condition caused by air pollution, you will be at higher risk of death from spikes in air pollution. He said that they had been working with the British Heart Foundation to study how pollution causes damage to the cardiovascular system for a long time. He used the example of how diesel exhaust affects the cardiovascular system and human health. He also said that air pollution had a poor effect on blood vessels which feed cancer tumours, and exhausted circulating cells which help to repair our bodies and it’s been shown that pollutants like diesel exhaust change these cells. He finished by showing some of the ways in which individuals can change their lives to reduce exposure to air pollution and become healthier.
Dr Emilia Lim, The Francis Crick Institute, outlined the links between air pollution and lung cancer. Research has found a growing number of cases of lung cancer in non-smokers – about 15 to 20% of cases occur non-smokers, and this is a huge concern because 85% of people in the UK do not smoke. She added that most people live in places with air pollution levels that exceed WHO guidelines. In countries where air pollution levels were much higher than the UK, lung cancer levels correlated. But she said that the effects of air pollution are poorly understood, so they have investigated how mutations from micro environmental changes might impact lungs, such as regions of high air pollution versus those who live in areas of low air pollution.
Dr Tom Russ, University of Edinburgh, gave a presentation on the impacts of air pollution on brain health and dementia. He said that interest in the evolution stage of the brain has grown in recent years and every study suggests this is bad for the brain. He showed how ultra fine particles can have direct and indirect effects on the brain and inflammatory effects on the lungs. In terms of determining risk, he spoke about a study from Iceland, where they demonstrated something similar for the brain and the effect on cognitive development over a lifetime. Evidence has found that 2% of dementia cases could be prevented by tackling air pollution. Early life air pollution exposure may be important and studies are being done on historic air pollution levels going back to 1935 to assess the impacts on intelligence tests and long-term health. Dr Ross also added that dementia is a disease of the life course. It is not a disease of later life as it manifests itself in later life, but the brain changes start decades before the symptoms start.
Jo Churchill MP, DEFRA Minister, thanked everyone involved in Clean Air Day. She called for every day to be a Clean Air Day and said that the Government was “committed to protecting people from the dangers of air pollution, alongside driving down emissions and concentrations of harmful pollutants to their lowest levels since records began.” She said that the tragic death of Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013 had highlighted the importance of tackling air pollution. A new group had been established in the Government to comprehensively review how to communicate air quality information. She added that the Environment Act focuses on air quality targets and maximising improvements to public health. The Government is proposing a population exposure reduction target to support continuous improvement, even where concentration targets have already been achieved. She argued that this would on average cut people’s exposure to particulate matter over a third by 2014 compared to 2018 levels. While a 35% reduction was ambitious, she said it would contribute to a reduction of many 10,000s of cases of cardiovascular disease, strokes, asthma, lung cancer and other diseases over the course of 18 years. She thanked everyone who had engaged with the target consultation and sent valuable information into DEFRA and added that Clean Air Day brought people together on a vital issue. She finalised by asking everyone to have conversations with their family, friends and colleagues to consider what they could do to improve air quality.
Larissa Lockwood, Global Action Plan, concluded by thanking everyone for attending the event and said that there are 300 formal support organisations involved in the Clean Air Day campaign. Information and resources from GAP will be shared after the event.
You can watch the Q&A section of the event here.