Sun, Mar 24, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Waking up to a public health crisis

The UK’s air pollution is getting worse, with traffic fumes provoking increased instances of asthma and heart attacks. So why isn’t more being done about it?

By John Vidal  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Air pollution, especially from diesel engines, is a “neglected, hidden killer” and children and old people are especially at risk, Mudway said.

“There’s strong evidence that if you live near main roads you will have smaller lungs,” he said.

“They will not reach capacity and will be stunted. When, or if, people move to a cleaner environment they still do not recover the function they lost. We have good evidence that every child born in Tower Hamlets will have a reduction in the volume of their lungs by the age of eight. The point is, people die of lung disease later on. You store up a problem that will affect you later,” he said.

He lists some of the effects of polluted air. In the short term, it leads to irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, nausea, bronchitis and pneumonia. Over a longer period it can result in heart attacks and lung diseases, cancers, even damage to the brain, nerves, liver and kidneys.

“The [people who die] are only the very end of a spectrum of health effects,” he told a group of Tower Hamlets residents at a public meeting organized last month by environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth on the extra air pollution which would be caused by a proposed new four-lane road tunnel below the Thames.

“For everyone who dies there are many more who are hospitalized or who have impaired health. Prolonged exposure to elevated [particulate pollution levels] is associated with significant life-shortening and poor respiratory health. Acute episodes can precipitate death in sensitive subjects,” he said.

The more researchers like Mudway look at the health effects of air pollution, the worse it seems to get. The latest figures suggest 29,000 people die prematurely from it every year in Britain, twice as many as from road traffic, obesity and alcohol combined, and air pollution is now second only to smoking as a cause of death.

Its seriousness is confirmed by Asthma UK polls: “Two-thirds of people with asthma have told us that traffic fumes make it worse and one third say a reduction in air pollution would make the most difference to their lives,” a spokeswoman said.

After years of focusing on climate change, government and environment groups are only now slowly waking up to the public health crisis. In 2011, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee calculated that living in an air pollution hot spot could take nine years off the lives of the most vulnerable people.

It concluded that it cost Britain £6.19 billion (US$9.43 billion) a year, or up to 17 percent of the total UK health service budget, and that between 15 percent and 20 percent more people died prematurely from it in cities with high levels of pollution than those in relatively cleaner ones.

London, with 4,300 deaths a year, is one of the worst in Europe and the pollution monitor on Marylebone Road shows the fourth highest levels of nitrogen dioxide of more than 2,000 monitoring stations in Europe. The city has 2,500 schools and 180,000 children within 150m of roads carrying 10,000 or more vehicles a day.

“Fighting change are a few people in government who have either failed to understand that long-term exposure to air pollution is the biggest public health risk after smoking or they simply don’t care and want to cover up the issue for as long as possible. It is much worse than most of us have realized. It is one of the biggest public health failings for decades,” said Simon Birkett, a former banker who set up the campaigning group Clean Air in London in 2009.

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