New publication asks: Is the UK government’s clean air approach good enough?

Image credit: David McKelvey, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Academics and experts at The University of Manchester are calling for large-scale behavioural change in a bid to improve the UK’s air quality (“the biggest environmental health issue facing the UK”), in a new publication, On Air Quality. The report was published on 17 June to coincide with Clean Air Day, an initiative aiming to bring together communities, businesses, schools and the health sector to improve public understanding of air pollution and build awareness of how air pollution affects our health.

A landmark event for our understanding of air pollution’s dangers was the great smog of 1952, which killed 4000 people in London. “We’ve known for a long time that air pollution is bad for our health and for the environment,” says Mary Creagh in the foreword for the publication. Mary is the Chief Executive of Living Streets, the charity for everyday walking, and former Member of Parliament for Wakefield, and chair of the House of Commons Environmental Audit select Committee.

“Now research tells us about the harmful effects of exposure to particulate matter from tyres and stoves. Each time, knowledge has ultimately informed the policy and legislation needed to take appropriate action. This is why we welcome this timely publication.”

On Air Quality, published by Policy@Manchester, The University of Manchester’s policy engagement unit, is released ahead of the UK Government’s next-stage consideration of the Environment Bill which is due to be discussed at Committee Stage in the House of Lords on June 21. The bill is aimed at cleaning the country’s air, restoring natural habitats and increasing biodiversity, but is the bill in its current form enough?

Writing in On Air Quality Professor Hugh Coe says: “Addressing poor air is central to meeting many sustainable development goals and should be embedded in future urban planning and public healthcare policy.”

Currently the UK has an opportunity to lead on tackling a global problem. The Global Burden of Disease project estimated in 2017 that 3.4 million premature deaths globally could be attributed to outdoor air pollution and in 2019, 2.31 million global deaths could be attributed to household, or indoor air pollution.

“Whilst there are major challenges to be faced post-pandemic and post-Brexit, the UK would do well not to lose its leadership in solving global problems such as air pollution. Continuing to facilitate the co-development of partnerships to address the global air quality challenge through the development of regionally targeted solutions will convey numerous benefits to the UK.” Says Professor Coe.

The report also highlights the particular dangers to children’s health with an urgent need to review and improve the poor air quality around many British schools and colleges which has recently been linked to increasing cognitive health impairments including ADHD, depression and dementia.

In the new report Professor Martie Van Tongeren claims it is a critical time to prevent cognitive decline in children and prevent childhood neurodegenerative disease. “Pollutants can transfer to the bloodstream in the lungs and travel to other parts of the body including the brain or may travel directly to the brain from the nose through the olfactory nerve.

“The effects of air pollution exposure on brain health have been observed at different life stages. Children and the elderly face a considerably higher risk of neurological impacts resulting from air pollutants. There is an urgent need to review and increase the methods available to us for reducing air pollution exposure for the most vulnerable.”

The University of Manchester has previously pioneered a first of its kind ‘clean air for schools’ programme in Greater Manchester in 2019 to determine how varying levels of air quality affects school children.

“There are a range of interventions that can and must be made to protect children in their critical developmental years”, according to Professor Van Tongeren. “Local authorities and schools must work closely to minimise air pollution exposure, protecting the physical health and cognitive functioning of children and preventing significant impacts on society and the NHS from neurodegenerative diseases further down the line.”

There are many key areas which need greater scrutiny to create sensible polices and address the environment challenges of today and the future. On Air Quality highlights some of the key pressing topics ranging from improving localised air-quality, to a coordinated approach to tackling greenhouse emissions and air pollutants, to the negative impact pollution has on our economy.