Air quality: It’s time for joined-up thinking so that we can all breathe easier
The UK has an opportunity to lead the way on the global problem of air pollution – but as the latest figures highlight, there’s no time to waste on an issue this pressing.
Put simply, there is no “safe” level of pollutants when it comes to the air we breathe. UK laws currently adhere to EU guidance on fine air particulates (known as PM2.5), which are four times above the World Health Organisation’s PM2.5 legal maximum – and as more and more research finds health impacts of PM2.5 at lower concentrations than the EU’s limits, the UK Government should look to match WHO-approved levels instead.
That’s the recommendation from experts in new publication On Air Quality. The report, released by The University of Manchester’s policy engagement unit, Policy@Manchester, looks at the positive impact tackling air pollution could have on everything from individuals' health to the national economy. It argues that decision-makers from across academia, the public and private sectors, and both local and national government, must come together to create air quality policies that are fit for purpose.
The report also recommends a joined-up approach to tackling air quality and climate change. Approaching both in tandem, it says, will optimise policy efficiency and outcomes – and to maximise the co-benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving air quality, a common policy framework should be developed. Currently, the UK has no policy framework that simultaneously considers greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutant concentrations in planning regulations, which the report’s experts fear is both inefficient and ineffective. When either is approached in isolation, they warn, the other could fail entirely.
Children are disproportionately affected by poor air quality thanks to their higher breathing rate and greater levels of physical activity compared to adults. The On Air Quality publication not only highlights the part indoor and outdoor air pollution can play in children’s respiratory health, but also points to growing evidence that poor air quality contributes to brain-related health problems in children, including cognitive decline. One recent study found that exposure to air pollutants in very early life was linked to a worse change in IQ between the ages of 11 and 70.
Given how much of their time children spend in school, the question of how clean we keep the air around our schools is of growing importance and on this matter at least, progress is being made. In London, the Mayor’s school air quality audit programme assessed 50 primary schools in the capital’s most polluted areas and made recommendations to help schools reduce both emissions and pupils’ exposure to them. While this initiative is clearly a hugely positive step in measuring the scale of the air pollution problem, similar schemes will need to be implemented in cities around the country in order to make an impact nationwide.
Additionally, the On Air Quality report highlights the need for policy interventions that help reduce children’s exposure to traffic-related air pollutants – not only from local and national governments, but from schools themselves. Currently, the Government supports local projects to improve air quality through DEFRA’s air quality grant programme, but funding reviews are needed to ensure competition for grants aren’t negatively impacting some local authorities.
Stephen Edwards, Interim CEO of Living Streets, who contributed to the report highlighted the part we all have to play to ensure air quality is at the top of the agenda:
“Air pollution is one of the greatest environmental and health challenges facing us all. The need to work together to tackle toxic air has never been more urgent.
“At Living Streets, we work with schools nationwide to reduce congestion and air pollution outside school gates. WOW - our walk to school challenge encourages families to leave the car at home, making the journey to school safer, cleaner and healthier.”
Of course, the quality of the air we breathe impacts us at every age – and research even indicates that it acts as a catalyst for cognitive decline in older people. But when it comes to the health effects of air pollution, there’s no such thing as a level playing field, with lower-income groups disproportionately affected by poor air quality.
People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are often exposed to much higher levels of air pollutants; a fact that contributes to the UK’s widening health gap and means that low-income communities can expect to live in good health for less time than their wealthier counterparts, in part thanks to poor air quality where they live.
Writing in the On Air Quality report, Professor Sheena Cruickshank recommends the extension of initiatives such as the Manchester Urban Observatory and citizen science projects like Britain Breathing, which map respiratory symptoms by time and location. Not only can place-based community-centric programmes like these provide accurate on-the-ground information that helps bridge the gaps in our understanding of different areas’ uneven exposure to pollutants, but they are a useful tool in engaging and educating the communities affected.
Recent steps to fund such initiatives have been made by UKRI and the Wellcome Trust, but their effectiveness tends to be undermined by their short durations. Given the skepticism of institutional motives among the communities in question and how long it can take to build trust, longer term partnerships backed by specific funding for community engagement are what’s needed to make an impact.
Acknowledging the disproportionate effects of air pollution on certain groups, Labour MP and Chair of the Air Pollution APPG, Geraint Davies, commented: “Poorer and more diverse communities are likely to suffer worse air pollution leading to shorter, less healthy lives.
“We need to create greater awareness of the risks of pollution, to provide cleaner, more affordable public transport, and to encourage active travel and more working from home. It’s time for Government to help to improve our public health and to help avert climate change by putting legally binding WHO air quality limits into law and to set an example for COP26.”
Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, Munira Wilson, added: ‘The Liberal Democrats and I have been calling for the introduction of a Clean Air Act to bring in safer legal limits on air pollution in line with the guidelines of the World Health Organisation.
“The Government cannot wait a second longer to prevent future deaths and protect our communities.”
Conservative MPs are also highly engaged on the issue and keen to act quickly. Welcoming the report, Neil Parish, Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee, said: “Improving the nation’s air quality has never been more important than now. Every year, an estimated 64,000 deaths are linked to air pollution, which is disproportionately affecting disadvantaged communities.
“Whilst we are rightly taking great strides in tackling climate change by cutting carbon emissions, we must ensure that improving air quality is also a top priority as we rebuild from the pandemic.”
Jo Gideon, PPS to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and member of the Conservative Environment Network reflected on the issues in her own constituency and said: “Air pollution is a major problem in communities across the UK. Respiratory and other health conditions are adversely affected by poor air quality - people are less active, children do not want to play outside, and people do not want to walk or cycle.
"Air pollution is a vicious cycle. This has been a particular issue recently, as emissions from a local landfill site have led to high levels of hydrogen sulphide, causing great public concern, with impacts on mental as well as physical health.
"We must address all the contributory factors to poor air quality, so the revitalisation and promotion of our bus and rail networks is vital, as well as promoting cycling and active travel.”
You can read the University of Manchester's full report On Air Quality here.
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