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A shot of an industrial shoreline silhouetted at sunset, with smoke from a refinery curling into the sky.

Investigating the risks of air pollution in order to influence government policy

Published: 9 January 2019

Air pollution causes around 40,000 deaths every year, and costs the UK economy £20 billion over the same period. We've been involved with research aimed at highlighting this, and making recommendations to the government based on our findings.

Air pollution damages health

We're all exposed to air pollution to some extent, mainly from nitrogen dioxide emissions and particles from vehicle exhaust fumes, as well as domestic coal and wood burning.

A recent report, commissioned by the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, shows that the full extent of health problems caused by this pollution is much wider than previously thought.

Stephen Holgate, a Medical Research Council clinical professor of immunopharmacology at Southampton, chaired the working party that produced the report. His findings show that air pollution has a substantial impact on many chronic long-term conditions, increasing the risk of stroke and heart attack in susceptible people. It also negatively affects foetal development, particularly in the lungs, and there is now 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 is our duty to speak out.
Medical Research Council clinical professor of immunopharmacology

If we also consider indoor air pollution - such as from cleaning products, faulty boilers and paints - this adds a further 90,000 deaths per year in Europe to the estimate.

The report is clear that, although the government has set 'acceptable' limits for various pollutants in the air, all levels of pollution are damaging to our health, and we should instead adopt limits set by the World Health Organisation.

Additional risk to infants and young children

John Holloway, a professor allergy and respiratory genetics at Southampton, also contributed to the report, with a focus on how the youngest are affected by air pollution. This includes how early exposure stunts lung development while babies are still in the womb, increasing their chance of becoming more sensitive to other environmental exposures such as inhaled allergens, leading to asthma.

"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

Research history

Our researchers undertook some of the earliest work showing the damaging effects of air pollution on people.


  • Stephen helped to set up the government's Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants.
  • Stephen also collaborated with colleagues across the UK and in Umeå (northern Sweden), throughout the 1990s, to demonstrate how particulates damage the airway lining, cause inflammation, and aggravate respiratory diseases like asthma.
  • The Southampton Women's Survey, carried out at our MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, monitored the health of 12,583 Southampton women to produce longitudinal data.


  • Stephen's team, including John, identified the first asthma gene: ADAM33, which they reported in the journal Nature in 2001. This gene has been linked to airway hyper-responsiveness and remodelling in chronic asthma.


  • The Isle of Wight Birth Cohort study, which has followed 1489 children born in 1989 for the last 27 years, and is now recruiting their children into a new cohort: the Isle of Wight Third Generation study.
  • John's current research focuses on the genetics of allergy and asthma, in order to understand why some individuals are more susceptible than others. He has collaborated with Professor Hasan Arshad and colleagues in the USA, to study the epigenome which is thought to control how the blueprint of DNA is expressed.
  • Led by Professor David Phillips, Stephen and his colleagues in the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit have recently used government data, on the use of coal and other solid fuels between 1951-1952, as an index of air pollution. They showed that the level of household coal consumption in this period was strongly associated with mortality 40-60 years later.

"Our message is that everyone needs to take some responsibility to reduce the levels of pollutant exposure. Our recommendation is that we work hard now to put pressure on the government to increase the legislation that gives us another clean air act like we had in 1965, but rather than focusing on burning coal, dealing with the current issue of pollutants from vehicles... We should be encouraging active travel, to try and get people out of cars and onto their feet, and create a greater incentive in the UK to make that a safer option. We have some way to go, but we need to act now."

Professor Stephen Holgate

Related publications

Jonathan Grigg,
Raymond Agius,
John R. Ashton,
Paul Cullinan,
Karen Exley,
David Fishwick,
Gary Fuller,
Nikhil Gokani,
Chris Griffiths,
Paul Harrison,
John Henderson,
Mike Holland,
George Morris,
Patrick Saunders,
Samantha Walker,
Dafydd Walters,
Jane Dacre,
& Andrew Goddard
, 2016
Type: report