How can air pollution impact my health?
If we were to ask you what you thought the single largest environmental health risk in the UK is, what would you say? Perhaps you’d consider the impacts of climate change, whether that be flooding or extreme heat, or perhaps rising sea levels. The reality is that it’s something that impacts us all on a daily basis – air pollution.
In 2017 it was estimated that the health and social care costs of air pollution in England was £42.88 million, with that figure set to rise to an astonishing £5.3 billion by 2035 unless action is taken. In December 2020, a court recognised air pollution to be a cause of a person’s death – the first time this has occurred in the UK and possibly even the world. Although not diagnosed, it is estimated that long-term exposure to man-made air pollution in the UK has an annual effect equivalent to 28,000 to 36,000 deaths.
Industries and everyday activities such as transport, industrial processes, farming, energy generation and domestic heating can all have a negative impact on air quality. A mix of both natural and human originated particles and gases combine to produce air pollution. Particulate matter, Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide, Ammonia, Ozone, and Carbon Monoxide fill our air amongst other pollutants.
The health impacts of air pollution are vast and not just restricted to those impacting the respiratory system. Some of both the short-term and long-term impacts are:
- Exacerbation of asthma
- Coughing, wheezing & shortness of breath
- Irritation of eyes
- Impacts on reproductive system
- Cardiovascular disease
- Lung cancer
- Reduced life expectancy
- Low birth weight
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Heart attacks
- Mental health issues
For many, this list of health impacts will be an eye-opener. Although air pollution affects everyone to some extent, there are inequalities in exposure and a greater impact on those most vulnerable. Older people, children, individuals with existing cardiovascular disease or respiratory diseases, pregnant women, communities in areas of higher pollution, and low-income communities are all affected more greatly by air pollution.
It’s therefore shockingly clear that something needs to be done to improve our air quality. In September 2021 the World Health Organisation (WHO) cut recommended limits for key air pollutants in the face of growing evidence of its health impacts. In the UK, this means that British legal limits for PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide were now four times higher than the WHO recommendations. A wake-up call for the UK Government.
While it is down to the Government to react and respond to these recommended guidelines, there are steps all of us can take to reduce our exposure to air pollution. The British Lung Foundation recommend the following measures to take on days of high pollution:
- Reduce or avoid strenuous, outdoor exercise. If you have a lung condition, exercise has many benefits, so if possible, keep doing your exercise indoors in a well-ventilated room or gym.
- Stay away from pollution hotspots such as main roads and busy road junctions.
- Try to get to work a little earlier before rush hour has begun and levels of pollution have built up.
- If you cycle, run or walk as part of your commute, use back streets away from the bulk of vehicle congestion.
- Walk on the inside of the pavement – the further you are from the traffic the lower the pollution levels are.
- Make sure you carry your reliever inhaler with you if you use one.
- If you have asthma, make sure you use your preventer inhaler regularly.
- Make sure you carry or know your asthma plan. If you don’t have one, ask your doctor for one.
The effects of air pollution are probably not fully appreciated or understood by many, but it really is something that we should all have a fuller awareness of. There are a number of charities such as Asthma UK , British Heart Foundation, British Lung Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Greenpeace UK and London Age UK that provide details, support, and guidance on the impacts of air pollution.
If you want to assist these charities in their missions, then search for them on Toucan and add them to your portfolio to make a monthly contribution and receive a regular impact statement on the positive effect of your giving. The power to reduce air pollution begins at your fingertips.