Air pollution stunts lung growth

| 2nd December 2019
Defra’s latest figures estimate there are 40,000 early deaths across the UK every year because of air pollution
Living near a busy road stunts children’s lung growth by up to 14 percent, and increases lung cancer risk by 10 percent.

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Living within 50 metres of a major road in may increase your risk of developing lung cancer by up to 10 percent, a new report written by King’s College London has found. The report was released by a coalition of fifteen health and environment NGOs, including ClientEarth, the British Lung Foundation, and the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change which represents 650,000 health professionals in the NHS.

The levels of recorded roadside air pollution stunt lung growth in children by  approximately 14 percent in Oxford, 13 percent in London, 8 percent in Birmingham, 5 percent in Bristol, 5 percent in Liverpool, 3 percent in Nottingham, and 4 percent in Southampton. One third (33 percent) of Londoners - around 3 million people - are estimated to live near a busy road. 

The new research shows an increased risk of cardiac arrest, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and  bronchitis as well as reduced lung function in children. 

Reducing emissions 

Ahead of the General Election on 12 December, the group is calling for all political parties to commit to adopting a legally-binding target to meet World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for particulate matter pollution by 2030 and take steps to immediately reduce illegal air pollution across the UK.

The existing UK legal limits for particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) are still more than double the WHO guideline levels.

To date, none of the political parties have explicitly committed to meet the guidelines by 2030. The fear is that without a clear deadline and timetable, many more people will die and face debilitating health conditions. 

The group are also urging the introduction of a national network of Clean Air Zones across the UK.

London’s own clean air zone, the Ultra Low Emissions Zone, launched earlier this year has already had an impact on reducing air pollution, with levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) falling by 29 percent. 

Lung cancer

This is the first time that such a wide range of health conditions and cities have been analysed in one report, with the research comparing 13 different health outcomes including heart disease, lung cancer, strokes and bronchitis across 13 cities in the UK and Poland.

Previous research has tended to concentrate on deaths or hospital admissions, but this report also includes symptoms that affect a larger number of people such as chest infections (‘acute bronchitis’) and reduced lung function in children.

The report shows that cutting air pollution by one-fifth would reduce the number of lung cancer cases by 7.6 percent in London, 6.4 percent in Birmingham, 5.9 percent in Bristol, 5.3 percent in Liverpool, 5.6 percent in Manchester, 6.7 percent in Nottingham, 6 percent in Oxford and 5.9 percent in Southampton. 

Living near a busy road can trigger bronchitic symptoms amongst children with asthma. If pollution was reduced by one-fifth, there would be 3,865 fewer cases of children with bronchitic symptoms every year in London, 328 in Birmingham, 94 in Bristol, 85 in Liverpool, 85 in Manchester, 134 in Nottingham, 38 in Oxford and 69 in Southampton. 

'Deeply worrying'

Andrea Lee, clean air campaigns and policy manager at ClientEarth, said: “Toxic air puts an unfair burden on people’s lives. The good news is that solutions are available. The UK’s first clean air zone in London is already having an impact. But much more needs to be done to help people across the country move to cleaner forms of transport.

“To better protect people’s health, the next UK Government also needs to raise the bar by making a binding commitment to meet stricter WHO guidelines by 2030.

"If politicians were not already convinced by the abundant evidence that air pollution seriously harms our health, could this new research be the tipping point?” 

The call is being echoed by parents and leading health professionals who are warning of the “unsustainable burden on the NHS” of air pollution. A group of parents from across the country affected by air pollution, the Clean Air Parents’ Network, are writing to general election candidates asking them to commit to urgent action to protect children’s health as well as meeting WHO targets and setting up Clean Air Zones in the most polluted towns and cities. 

Lucy Harbor, mum, and founder of Clean Air 4 Schools, who lives in North London, said: “These findings are deeply worrying, as me and my family live by the A10 and my kids go to a school on a busy main road. Sadly, this report confirms many of my worst fears – that where we live and go to school could seriously be affecting our health.

"We are these statistics – one of my  children was hospitalised with pneumonia and has had asthma. That my children’s lung growth could be stunted by 12.5 percent makes me seriously question whether enough is being done to urgently bring pollution levels down on main roads in London.”

Unsustainable burden

Dr Sandy Robertson, Emergency Medicine Registrar at the Homerton University Hospital London and Council Member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, said: “It’s clear to see the effect of air pollution on the demand for emergency care in A&E waiting rooms. This study from Kings College quantifies the staggering scale of that link.

“Children in London are 4.2 percent more likely to be hospitalised by asthma on days of high pollution - resulting in an extra 74 child admissions.

Air pollution is not only an individual tragedy for those whose health suffers, it is also an unsustainable burden on our NHS. But we can make a difference. In the lead up to this General Election, it’s essential that all political parties commit to supporting a legally binding target to meet WHO air quality limits by 2030.”

Dr Rob Hughes, Senior Fellow at the Clean Air Fund, said: “Air pollution makes us, and especially our children, sick from cradle to grave, but is often invisible.

"This impressive research makes this public health crisis - which affects people all across the UK - visible, and shows the urgency with which all political parties must prioritise cleaning up our air.”

This Author

Marianne Brooker in The Ecologist's content editor. This article is based on a press release from King's College London. 

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