Air pollution: the new asbestos?

Posted On: 
5th June 2019

We need to act now or we will look back, as we do with the carnage wrought by asbestos, and think why we didn't act on air pollution, says Matthew Holder, Head of Campaigns at the British Safety Council. 

The British Safety Council recently launched the Time to Breathe campaign to draw attention to what needs to be done now to reduce workers’ exposure and to reduce emissions.
Credit: 
British Safety Council

We all know the feeling – something needs to be done but we can’t face doing it. You know it’s going to require great effort, potentially upset people who are important to you and it may make you look bad, or worse, put you out of pocket. In politics as in business, putting things off until tomorrow is a perfectly human response to such difficult decisions.

Yet, when it comes to protecting the health of people, there is no excuse for delay. We know that air pollution is incredibly bad for us. We know that long term exposure is a critical factor in determining the health impacts of air pollution. Yet, when it comes to protecting the health of people who work outdoors, year after year, in some of the most polluted streets of the country, employers are simply burying their heads in the sand.

This is the case even though 36,000 people in the UK die early from air pollution and recent research shows that such workers are exposed to six times higher amount of dangerous pollutants than indoor workers. Yes, managing the risks of air pollution is difficult and yes, the evidence relating it to the health of outdoor workers needs to improve. But in a country with world-leading emissions data and with new technologies coming onto the market to help employers measure, track and monitor pollutants, there is no excuse for inaction.

In response, the British Safety Council recently launched the Time to Breathe campaign to draw attention to what needs to be done now to reduce workers’ exposure and to reduce emissions. It’s offering employers a free mobile app, Canairy, designed for employers and their outdoor workers to capture information on exposure to air pollution and use these insights to drive organisational change.

Part of this is to recognise that government is complicit in this inaction by not demanding employers to address this health hazard. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the regulator involved in making sure employers address the risks that workers face, doesn’t intend to research or regulate what it dismisses as ‘environmental exposures.’ With the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines showing that if you work or commute in a polluted area your health is at risk, this is not acceptable.

That is why the British Safety Council is calling on its members, as well as other organisations and individuals to write to their local MPs asking them to contact both Secretaries of State for DWP and Defra to call for change. At the heart of the letter is the following message: 

Air pollution, linked to as many as 36,000 early deaths a year in the UK, is now recognised as the biggest environmental risk to public health. It is a legacy of years of inaction by regulators and public bodies which choose to ignore the mounting evidence of the impact of air pollution on our health and lives.

I am deeply concerned that we are ignoring a present health risk to the thousands of people around the country who work outside for a living.

As we are protected by law from the harm of specific toxic substances such as asbestos, we must also be safeguarded from the dangers of air pollution. This protection should be enshrined in law as a fundamental human right.  

I share the British Safety Council’s concerns and support their Time to Breathe campaign in requesting that:

  • The HSE researches the links between long-term occupational exposure to ambient air pollution and its impact on the health of outdoor workers and drivers. As a matter of urgency, it should immediately recognise exposure to ambient air pollution as an occupational health hazard.
  • Defra and the Devolved Administrations should invest to improve pollution monitoring across the UK. Reducing exposure requires detailed pollution measurements. All UK regions have the right to the same accuracy in emissions data as London.
  • The UK should recognise and adopt World Health Organisation’s (WHO) exposure guidelines for nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and ozone. The UK currently adopts the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive for threshold limit values on ambient air which are higher than those set by WHO.

To download the full letter please go here.

We need to act now or we will look back, as we do with the carnage wrought by asbestos, and think why we didn't act? Why are people suffering and why are we paying huge sums of money in compensation when the science, both human health science and emission tracking technology, not to mention applications like Canairy, indicate what should be done? In the future, we will not be able to avoid those difficult questions.