Public Health England have recently released a new report which provides practical advice and measures to help local authorities reduce air pollution and its impacts on public health.
It is a welcome change from reports which criticise without offering pragmatic solutions. PHE also makes clear that we already have available the means to improve our air quality, and quashes idea that a cleaner environment and economic growth are mutually exclusive.
With estimates of premature deaths due to air pollution ranging from 28,000 to 40,000 people each year, it presents a significant risk to public health. PHE have explored interventions that reduce air pollution at its source, and found that these have the greatest impact on reducing its harmful effects on health; such as on rates of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, mental ill health, diabetes and poor lung development in infants.
We all have a role to play in cleaning up our air, just as we do in acting on climate change, and the two problems are intrinsically linked. The burning of fossil fuels, a key driver of climate change, is also one of the major factors responsible for air pollution.
Focusing on vehicles and fuels, spatial planning, industry, agriculture and behavioural change, Public Health England has embraced a holistic approach to improving air quality, and illustrated how the public sector, private industry, local and central government and the public all need to be involved in creating a safer environment for current and future generations.
It recognises that a coherent approach to the problem between neighbouring local authorities is necessary. Air pollution by its very nature drifts and spreads, so clean air zones may need to cross local authority boundaries, and should be designed so that they are effective in one area without displacing the pollution problem to another.
Agricultural interventions to improve housing and feeding of livestock and alternative fertilisation methods will go even further on having a positive impact on air pollution. They will also reduce other types of environmental contamination such as those due to fertilisers and plastics, improve animal husbandry, act on climate climate change and provide better quality human food.
Highlighting awareness events like Clean Air Day, PHE also illustrates the effectiveness of local and national campaigns.
The report focuses on the health gains and has a particular emphasis on our children’s health.
Interventions to stop engine-idling around schools and developing ways to encourage walking and cycling to school will also reduce the amount of air pollution children are exposed to and encourage healthy exercise.
The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change focuses its own holistic approach to supporting public health on three areas; active lives, healthy diets and clean air. Acting on climate change embraces, encourages and results in these three things.
Stemming the use of fossil fuels for heating, powering vehicles and producing synthetics such as plastics and fabrics limits its impact on climate and results in cleaner air and a healthier population.
Active transport such as cycling and walking also has health co-benefits, and eating a healthier diet rich in fruit and vegetables with smaller portions of meat means less waste, more space to rear animals in better conditions and better health all round.
Claire McLoughlin, Communications manager, UK Health Alliance
Competing interests: None declared