Breathing polluted air affects our health, shortens our life expectancy and costs our society billions of pounds a year. It is estimated that two million healthy life years are lost in Europe due to poor air quality, making the need to improve the air we breathe and the pollution we produce a clear priority.
Despite improvements in air quality in recent decades, air pollution remains a major risk factor for the environment. That is why the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) through its Cleaner Air Program aims to reduce human exposure to address existing health inequalities and improve outcomes for all.
Increasing the evidence base
UKHSA’s program is organized around three core outcomes: increasing the science base, influencing and supporting stakeholders and improving awareness and understanding.
We build this scientific foundation by publishing journals, reports and policy papers on a range of topics and assessing the effectiveness of interventions. Key to the research we conduct is our Health Protection Research Units (HPRUs), existing partnerships between academia and UKHSA, funded by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR).
Between 2014 and 2020, one such HPRU, ‘Health impacts of Environmental Hazards’, focused its research on air quality, ranging from in vitro laboratory studies to epidemiological studies. Starting in 2020, four new HPRUs – including partnerships with the University of Leicester, Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – will continue to explore and answer key air pollution questions, namely:
- How does air pollution affect our health?
- How does exposure to air pollution vary in different environments?
- How can we improve our understanding of indoor air quality?
- What can we do to reduce exposure?
Influencing and supporting stakeholders
To support our stakeholders, it is vital that UKHSA Air Quality representatives offer their expertise on air pollution to improve understanding of the problem across the country.
In preparation for Clean Air Day, Amanda Craswell from the Department of Environmental Hazards and Emergencies (EHE) joined the Leeds City Council’s Public Health and Environmental Health team to encourage actions to reduce emissions and improve better health, while Charlotte Landeg-Cox discussed public consultation and engagement at the Transition Clean Air networking event ‘Beyond the Clean Air Zone’ in Birmingham.
On the occasion of National Clean Air Day, the London Air Quality and Health Program Office, hosted by UKHSA, presented a paper to the London Clinical Executive Group requesting:
- are committed to strengthening media coverage of the need to improve air quality and address health inequalities in Integrated Care Systems and Trusts; and
- pay attention to the harmful impact of air quality on health and include air quality in discussions about local health care and encourage accelerated action.
Improving awareness and understanding
Building on Public Health England, the UKHSA continues to monitor environmental public health and monitor air pollution.
A new pilot surveillance system aims to consider both environmental and indoor aspects of exposure to air pollution and is a tool that can be used by stakeholders to evaluate interventions aimed at reducing this exposure at the population level. Over time, the system should have the potential to establish links with health behaviors and health outcomes.
What can you do?
Air pollution is a problem that affects all of us, but it is almost always the most socio-economically disadvantaged people who suffer the most, as well as the most vulnerable in our society, such as children and people with underlying conditions.
We can all do our part to improve air quality. By walking or cycling to work and school, we can improve our health through exercise and then help reduce air pollution – where you can, walk those short distances and leave your car at home.
Talking is also vital – ask local and national decision-makers what would make it easier for you to walk more in your local community, and talk to friends, family and colleagues about the harms of air pollution.
According to the Global Action Plan, 82% of people think air pollution should be a priority for the UK, up from 11% in the last three years, while 90% now report doing at least one thing to reduce outdoor air pollution.
The consensus on the need for clean air is clear, and each individual step combined with the impact of actions by local and national governments will ensure that the air we breathe will improve immeasurably in the future.
You can read more about what the UKHSA is doing to tackle air pollution in the latest edition of our Chemical Hazards and Toxins report, published on 16 June.
The Global Action Plan team has gathered everything you need to know about air pollution in one place, published here.