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Air pollution alerts aren't doing enough to protect people suffering from toxic air

4 min read

The threats posed by air pollution can’t be overstated. Responsible for an estimated 36,000 premature deaths a year in the United Kingdom, toxic air creates new lung conditions and worsens existing ones, sometimes even leaving people hospitalised.

It’s also linked to lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and stunted lung growth in children.  

The government has acknowledged this risk through its national air quality information system, which among other things sets out a daily forecast for air pollution using the Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI). If pollution rises above a certain threshold, the DAQI issues alerts warning people there’s a significant danger to public health from outdoor air pollution. It essentially advises those who are at greatest risk, including people with lung and heart problems, to reduce their levels of physical exertion, particularly outdoors. This isn’t very realistic advice for people who have to leave their house to go to work, or just simply live their lives.

New estimates from Asthma + Lung UK have shown that up to 3.4 million people with lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are triggered by toxic air. Given the scale of this issue, alerts should be an integral part of helping people to plan their days when air pollution is particularly high. But we’re seriously concerned that the current alert system doesn’t go far enough to protect people from toxic air. 

The alert system fails to put any onus on polluters to reduce their long-term contribution to the country’s lethal air

Firstly, the thresholds at which the DAQI sends out alerts are increasingly out of date, meaning that many people with a lung condition experience adverse health effects long before they receive an alert. New reports come to light regularly about the dangers air pollution poses. Yet, the thresholds which determine whether DAQI’s pollution alerts are “low”, “medium” or “high” are becoming increasingly out of date as new research about the severity of the health impacts of air pollution continues to roll in. 

Exposure to air pollution damages people’s health over time, but the alert system fails to put any onus on polluters to reduce their long-term contribution to the country’s lethal air. The alerts are basically a sticking plaster, targeting victims of pollution by telling those at greatest risk to reduce strenuous physical exertion outdoors when air quality is particularly bad, without raising awareness or understanding of the dangers of air pollution among the general public, or encouraging steps to drive down pollution over the longer term. 

The effectiveness of the alert system is seriously limited because most people don’t know it exists. Our survey of people with lung conditions found 62 per cent of people were unaware of the DAQI. There’s very limited access to accurate data at the local level, nor disease-specific guidance from government on how people can best protect themselves against the health effects of dirty air, meaning that some people might be staying at home when it could be more beneficial for them to go out and exercise. 

The effects of air pollution are monumental, not just on our health but our mental wellbeing. Almost a quarter of people with lung conditions surveyed by Asthma + Lung UK said air pollution made them feel low or depressed, with a third of people forced to trap themselves indoors when pollution is high and almost half avoiding outdoor exercise.

More sophisticated alert systems could help people better manage their activities during high pollution days, so people are more aware about the air they breathe and the health impacts of dirty air. 

Come and speak to us in Parliament: for a week from 18 July, Asthma + Lung UK will be hosting a stand in the Upper Waiting Hall for politicians to learn more about toxic air. Please stop by and chat to me about how we can work together to improve air pollution across the country.


Sarah Woolnough is the CEO at Asthma + Lung UK.

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