EXPERT COMMENTARY - "40,000 premature deaths a year in UK caused by poor air quality"
Professor Hugh Coe is Professor of Atmospheric Composition in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester and a leading expert in air pollution.
Today (Thursday 15th June) is the first ever National Clean Air Day and Professor Hugh Coe says it is imperative we reduce air pollution in our towns and cities.
“Poor air quality in our cities has been estimated to lead to over 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. The main health effects that are known to arise from poor air quality are heart disease and poor lung function. However, infant development, cognitive function and other diseases and conditions have also been linked to air pollution, though these links are not yet well proven.”
Prof Coe says those living in major towns and cities are at the highest risk levels: “To minimise the effects of pollution on our health we need to decrease the levels of pollution in our towns and cities and also reduce our exposure to the pollution,” he says.
“The closer we are to car exhausts the greater our exposure, so living close to major highways, working for extended periods near to major traffic routes, spending a long time in a car in traffic where emissions are taken into the car through the front grille all increase our risk.”
Poor air quality in our cities has been estimated to lead to over 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. The main health effects that are known to arise from poor air quality are heart disease and poor lung function. However, infant development, cognitive function and other diseases and conditions have also been linked to air pollution, though these links are not yet well proven.
So what makes air pollution and contaminants so dangerous and what causes it? “Oxides of nitrogen and tiny particulates less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, that’s less than ten times the width of a human hair, exceed legislated guidelines many times each year across our cities affecting people who live and work there.”
Diesel vehicles are a particular issue according to Prof Coe, “these oxides of nitrogen are emitted largely by road vehicles and, in recent years, it has become apparent that reductions in emissions from diesels under test conditions are not being translated into on road reductions under real driving conditions. This has led to us experiencing large concentrations in our cities.”
Prof Coe adds whilst the vehicles on our roads are undoubtedly the primary source of air pollution, there are also other contributory factors: “Particulates arise from vehicle exhausts but also from other sources such as wood burning in homes in winter, commercial cooking, non-exhaust road emissions from tyre, engine and brake wear and resuspension from road surfaces. Construction makes a substantial contribution also.”
But Prof Coe adds there are some simple ways the public can help reduce emissions: “Things like not adding to pollution during the school run and exposing children to harmful pollution are extremely beneficial. Think about the journey, do you really need to use your car? And it’s not just the school run. We need to consider how we can commute to work in a cleaner, but efficient way and to think more carefully before we use our vehicles.”
That is why Prof Coe believes events like National Clean Air Day need to be embraced by the relevant authorities and general public: “The first ever National Clean Air Day aims to inform us of how we create pollution, how we can minimise it and also how we can reduce our exposure to it. The day is to encourage us into action to reduce our reliance on using our cars wherever we can, so we are not fouling the air for our neighbours.”