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This silent killer must be tackled alongside climate change

Outdoor workers took their #TimetoBreathe message to COP26 in Glasgow

British Safety Council

4 min read Partner content

For two whole weeks, the world’s attention has been focused on Glasgow and the vital attempts to forge an agreement that can keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

During that time, much has been heard about the need to cut our emissions of carbon dioxide and methane – understandably, given these are the two biggest causes of climate change. But another, perhaps even more immediate issue, lies beneath.

This is the terrible impact that air pollution, which itself results from burning fossil fuels, is having on our health right now. A toxic cocktail is to blame – including small particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2).

Each year, around 7 million people around the world, and up to 40,000 people in the UK, die because of the air they breathe. Perhaps it is worth taking a moment to digest this.

On the world’s roads, about 1.3 million people die annually in traffic accidents and that figure in the UK is now less than 1,500. According to the WHO and ILO, just under 2 million people die globally at work every year and the UK’s own workplace fatalities are now as low as 142.

Every single one of those deaths is a tragedy that should and can be prevented – and it remains British Safety Council’s mission to ensure that no one is injured or made ill through their work.

But can we really stand by and allow 13 people around the world to die every minute of every day from something that, in many places, cannot be seen, heard, or even smelt? Air pollution is a silent killer and addressing it goes hand-in-glove with tackling climate change.

Each year, around 7 million people around the world, and up to 40,000 people in the UK, die because of the air they breathe

We and many others believe this silence must be broken, which is why just over two years ago we started our campaign #TimetoBreathe and took it to the streets of Glasgow during COP26.

We want to raise awareness of the impact that air pollution is having on people whose job means they don’t get to choose the air breathe, because they work outdoors. This includes everyone from builders to police officers, delivery riders to doorstep salespeople, postmen and women to firefighters.

Many thousands of people do not have the luxury of closing a window or switching on the air conditioning where they work. The truth is though, we do not know enough about the impact that air pollution has on outdoor workers, which is why we want more research to be done, and why we developed our own ‘Canairy’ app with experts from King’s College London.

This is a free app which workers in London can download. It tracks their hourly exposure to nitrogen dioxide, ozone and smaller particulates (PM2.5 and PM10), and maps this to data about current air pollution in the capital. Canairy provides workers with information to help them avoid the worst levels of pollution during their work and gives employers insights to inform health risk assessments and work schedules.

We are also calling on the UK Government to take more action on the issue of air quality. Much is being done at a local authority level to introduce and expand low emission zones, which in London have already had a major impact on reducing pollution and improving air quality, greater even than the impact of the Covid lockdown.

To truly tackle this problem at a national level, we need the Government to adopt stricter targets and urge them to match the World Health Organization (WHO) limits. While these are ambitious, and were recently reduced, this is because there is no safe amount of exposure to small particulates, which have been seen to have a devastating effect on the body, especially in young people, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.

Disappointingly, it missed an opportunity to do so in the Environment Act. This must be put right in the coming months. 


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