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The University of Southampton

40,000 deaths a year linked to air pollution

Published: 23 February 2016
40,000 deaths a year linked to air pollution

A new report, involving researchers from the University of Southampton, starkly sets out the dangerous impact air pollution is currently having on our nation’s health – with around 40,000 deaths a year linked to air pollution.

Entitled ‘Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution’, the report says the harm from air pollution is not just linked to short term episodes but is a long term problem with lifelong implications.

The report notes examples from right across an individual’s lifespan, from a baby’s first weeks in the womb through to the years of older age. Examples include, the adverse effects of air pollution on the development of the fetus, including lung and kidney development, and miscarriage, increases in heart attacks and strokes for those in later life; and the associated links to asthma, diabetes, dementia, obesity and cancer for the wider population.

Stephen Holgate, Medical Research Council Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, chaired the working party for the report, while John Holloway, Professor of Allergy and Respiratory Genetics at the University, co-wrote Chapter 3: In the beginning: protecting our future generations.

Professor Holloway explores how and why infants and young children are affected by air pollution. It says that due to the rapid pace of change which take place in utero and early childhood as children develop, the adverse effects from air pollution can have far greater influence on health than exposure of adults, as important organ systems, once their development is harmed, cannot recover resulting in life long effects on health. In particular, harmful exposures during pregnancy can modify DNA of the developing child, altering the way genes are regulated. This can not only alter development of organs (such as the lungs), leading to differences in organ function at birth, but may also lead to altered responses to further exposure to pollutants later in life.

Professor Holloway comments: “There are three major periods of vulnerability to the adverse effects of air pollution: the mother’s health during pregnancy, the development of the fetus and infancy. Everything is inextricably linked. There is no doubt that air pollution can affect the fetus, either indirectly through the health of the mother, or directly by affecting developing fetal organs and systems. These effects can have a permanent influence on growth and health throughout life. Exposure of the young child to air pollution can produce definite harm and increase the risk of disease both immediately and throughout the rest of their lives. We must act now to ensure our future generations are not put at risk.”

Professor John Holloway
Professor John Holloway

Professor Holgate adds: “We now know that air pollution has a substantial impact on many chronic long term conditions, increasing strokes and heart attacks in susceptible individuals. We know that air pollution adversely effects the development of the fetus, including lung development. And now there is compelling evidence that air pollution is associated with new onset asthma in children and adults. When our patients are exposed to such a clear and avoidable cause of death, illness and disability, it our duty to speak out.”

The landmark report has been led by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

In relation to asthma, the report stresses the significant point that after years of debate, there is now compelling evidence that air pollution is associated with both reduced lung growth in childhood and new onset asthma in children and in adults - whilst highlighting that air pollution increases the severity of asthma for those with the disease.

In recent years the dangers of outdoor air pollution have been well documented however, the report 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. According to the report indoor air pollution may have caused or contributed to 99,000 deaths annually in Europe.

Although government and the World Health Organization (WHO) set ‘acceptable’ limits for various pollutants in our air, the report states that there is in fact no level of exposure that can be seen to be safe, with any exposure carrying an associated risk.

Professor Stephen Holgate
Professor Stephen Holgate

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.

Other key points from the report note:

  • Estimated cost of air pollution in the UK is £20 billion annually (in Europe €240 billion)
  • A need to develop new technologies to improve air pollution monitoring.
  • More research to determine how social and economic trends are affecting air quality and its twin threat climate change.

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