Air pollution is not a new problem in the UK. The London smog of 1952 killed 12,000 people. Since then, changes in the way we live have also changed the air pollution that we breathe. Coal burning has fallen dramatically, but today increased road transport and the failure to control some exhausts from diesel vehicles has led to us being exposed to new air pollutants.
Looking at different generations tells the story. As children, today’s grandparents were exposed to soot and sulphur dioxide from coal burning. Those now in middle age breathed in emissions from leaded petrol. Today’s children walk and cycle much less, and they inhale nitrogen dioxide and the tiny particulates from diesel-fuelled vehicles.
Around the world, there are many examples where reducing air pollution has improved public health. It now seems likely that childhood exposure to air pollution has a lasting influence on health, so the gains from tackling air pollution today will be felt throughout the decades to come.
In 2012, road traffic in the UK was ten times higher than in 1949. Total distance walked each year decreased by 30% between 1995 and 2013.
- Growth in pollution has not always been as fast as growth in traffic, thanks to tighter exhaust controls. Modern cars produce very little carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, and the sulphur and lead in diesel and petrol must meet tight regulations.
- Nitrogen dioxide and particulates from diesel engines have been poorly controlled and these remain a problem. In the UK today, about half of cars run on diesel. This is the trend across Europe, but not in the USA or Japan. Nearly all buses, vans and lorries, forms of water transport, and many trains, use diesel in the UK, along with construction and farm machinery.
- Each year, inhaling particulates causes around 29,000 deaths in the UK, which, on recent evidence, may rise to around 40,000 deaths when also considering nitrogen dioxide exposure.
- Home heating has changed, too. Compared with coal fires, modern gas boilers produce very little particle pollution – but they do give off nitrogen dioxide. Cooking, especially with gas, is also an important source of nitrogen dioxide and particles.
- Air pollution can stay around for days or weeks after it’s created. One type of chemical may interact with others in the atmosphere, to cause even more pollution. Air pollution also crosses cities, counties and even countries, so local action is not enough on its own.
Reproduced from: Royal College of Physicians. Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution. Report of a working party – 20-page summary document. London: RCP, 2016.
Copyright © 2016 Royal College of Physicians. Reproduced with permission.