Skip to main content
Home » Respiratory » Air pollution: a public health emergency that urgently needs a public health response
Respiratory Health 2019

Air pollution: a public health emergency that urgently needs a public health response

iStock / Getty Images Plus

Larissa Lockwood

Head of Health and Air Quality, Global Action Plan

Clean air is starting to dominate our conversations, from car emissions to cleaning products, yet there is little information to help the public, including vulnerable patients.

Research, commissioned for Global Action Plan’s Clean Air Public Insights Tracker, showed that 94% of the UK population think that reducing air pollution should be a priority for the country but only 16% know where to go for advice about air pollution it, despite the serious health effects polluted air can cause.

Air pollution can affect your health from your first breath to your last

The World Health Organization and the UK Government recognise that air pollution is the largest environmental health risk we face today. It causes heart and lung diseases, is linked to low birth weight and children’s lung development and may even contribute to mental health issues.  That is why Larissa Lockwood, the Head of Health and Air Quality at Global Action Plan, believes we need a public health response with more information for the public and health professionals.

She says: “You can see with other health crises, such as smoking or obesity, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have led the campaign. But when it comes to the air that we breathe, the DHSC offers very little despite the impact air pollution has on our health.

Now, Global Action Plan have begun working with NHS trusts to put together a three-pronged plan using the Clean Air Hospital Framework, which was developed with Great Ormond Street Hospital.  This includes  the health service acting as a role model by, for example, consolidating deliveries to site and making sure people can access services by public transport.   

It also looks at the role of health professionals in providing advice about air pollution to vulnerable patients to help them reduce their exposure, work that Global Action Plan are taking further through a number of small demonstrator projects with respiratory and paediatric professionals.  As Larissa explains: “Air pollution is a health problem.  I will know it is being addressed as a health problem when my asthma nurse starts talking to me about air pollution. This can only happen when health professionals have the resources to give them the required levels of information and confidence to advise on the topic.”

There is a real knowledge gap when it comes to reducing both indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Knowledge gap for the public

Global Action Plan have found that there is a real knowledge gap when it comes to reducing both indoor and outdoor air pollution and have now launched the Clean Air Hub, with the technical information approved by DEFRA and Public Health England. The Hub offers  accessible guidance on the sources of air pollution, the health impacts and simple ways to reduce it in the home and outdoors.

“There are steps we can all take to help our family avoid toxic air and cut down on the pollution we make,” says Larissa. “And while taking fewer car journeys or switching to electric can help, there are things to be done inside the home too, such as cutting down on wood burning or re-thinking the paints and household cleaners we use.”

Larissa believes that our air will only improve when it becomes socially unacceptable to abuse it. She says: “Right now, smoking is banned in public places, but it’s fine to idle a car outside a health clinic or a school. We need to change this social norm. And we need to get the public onside in tackling air pollution through a public engagement campaign. The more people know about it, the more supportive they will be of clean air policies. And the more the public understands about the risks to health, the more likely they will be to act. Air pollution is preventable and relatively simple steps can solve this crisis.”

Air improves when London traffic is stopped

Research by Global Action Plan, using King’s College London data, has shown that when cars were taken off the roads for the 2018 London Marathon, air quality dramatically improved by 89%. Larissa adds: “There are so many unnecessary journeys on our roads. Potentially, if we all worked from home one day a week, that could be a fifth of the rush hour traffic off the roads. Many organisations  are already set up for staff to do this, so we just need to make it the  norm.”

While parts of government are committed to improving air quality, , Larissa believes that the UK still needs to step up its commitment as a whole, in line with the World Health Services’ recommendations. She says, “We’ve got some legislation going through but we need much stronger standards in terms of regulation. We need a public health campaign on air pollution and we need health professionals to be empowered to advise their patients. This is solvable, we just need to work together.”

Next article