Sue Hayman on why the Government must act now to break the stark link between air pollution and poor health outcomes
It is now widely accepted that spending time enjoying the great outdoors can boost our health and wellbeing, something reinforced no doubt by people’s personal experiences of lockdown. But the air breathed by many in the UK contains toxic levels of pollution and has become a silent killer, leading to around 36,000 premature deaths per year.
Fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, can cause terrible damage. It comes predominantly from vehicles and heavy industry, and has been linked to increased risk of illnesses as diverse as lung cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and dementia.
Poor air quality is not spread equally across the UK. The most deprived parts of our towns and cities tend to be the most severely polluted, meaning the impact is disproportionately felt by those on the lowest incomes. Groups that are already among the most vulnerable – pregnant women, infants and children, the elderly, and those with lung conditions – are, sadly, the most likely to be hardest hit.
The dangers of toxic air are not new. In 2005, the World Health Organisation (WHO) set targets for governments to reduce levels of air pollution to try to avoid the worst health impacts. WHO revised its guidelines this September, significantly reducing the recommended levels for all pollutants in response to overwhelming evidence of the dangers of exposure.
Analysis from Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation has found that around a third of children in the UK are growing up in areas with dangerous levels of pollution. As if this weren’t bad enough, almost a third of England’s hospitals, schools, colleges, and GP surgeries, as well as a quarter of care homes, are in areas that breach the 2005 WHO rules. It is a travesty that people are at risk in the places where they should feel most safe.
Many will be familiar with the tragic case of Ella Kissi-Debrah, whose death the crown court ruled last year was partially due to exposure to high levels of pollution. But they might be less aware that a staggering 88% of Asthma sufferers in the UK state that toxic air significantly impacts on their daily lives, triggering symptoms and trapping them indoors on days when levels rise.
The government has consistently failed to prioritise the issue, missing its own legal limits for Nitrogen Dioxide and with PM2.5 still well above recommended levels. Ministers keep telling us that its flagship Environment Bill will “deliver cleaner air for all” but at the same time kick the can down the road, promising unspecified future action rather than clear legislative commitments.
The science is clear, as is the Labour Party’s commitment: tackling air pollution is a primary health and environmental objective. Keeping everyone safe from its effects is a cornerstone of our public health policy, with Keir Starmer committing a future Labour government to passing a Clean Air Act.
For the best part of a year, I have been working with colleagues across the House of Lords to amend the Environment Bill to include a 2030 target for meeting the WHO’s clean air guidelines. This is an ambitious but achievable timeframe that would not only benefit public health but set the pace for pollution reductions in line with the 2050 net zero emissions target.
Although our amendment was rejected in the Commons last week, senior Conservative MPs – such as Neil Parish and Bob Neill – expressed clear concern that the government was being too slow to act on air quality. Tomorrow, when the issue comes back before the Lords, I will again make the case for the inclusion of a clear, binding target in the Bill. By agreeing to do so, Ministers could prevent millions of our fellow citizens from being consigned to a lifetime of poor health.
Baroness Sue Hayman of Ullock is a Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @SueHayman1
Published 25th October 2021