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Guest blog: UK air pollution leads to 29,000 premature deaths a year - it's time to act

(30 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 03-May-13 10:40:43

On Wednesday, the UK's highest appeal court ruled that the government has breached European Union air quality laws by failing to reduce pollutants, and now faces EU fines of more than £300 million a year.

In today's guest blog, meteorologist and weather forecaster Clare Nasir says the government needs to act fast to save lives.

What do you think - do you worry about air quality, or does it never cross your mind? Did you know that so many lives are lost through air pollution? Tell us here on the thread, and if you blog on this, don't forget to post your URL.

"I became an ambassador for the Healthy Air Campaign when my daughter was a year old. She'd been born 8 weeks prematurely, and suffered from breathing issues. As a new mother, I was horrified by what I discovered about the effects of poor air quality -  a serious public health risk that the government has tried to sweep under the carpet, until yesterday's Supreme Court ruling that they have failed to protect our health from air pollution.

In the UK, air pollution, mostly produced from traffic fumes, causes three times more deaths than the likes of obesity or alcohol. The figure is a staggering 29,000 people a year. The levels of air pollution in many parts of the UK are illegal, and some large cities such as London, Glasgow Manchester and Birmingham have levels of pollution two or three times the legal limit set by the EU, based on guidance from the World Health Organisation.

Exposure to dirty air over a long period of time causes heart attacks, strokes and respiratory disease. Even the healthiest amongst us are at risk. Taking a stroll close to a busy road, shopping in town, cycling to work or spending time in a city park exposes you to all types of pollutants. Terrifyingly, it's an invisible threat that can take years to manifest.

Even worse there is strong evidence that children living near busy roads grow up with underdeveloped lungs - children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution, which makes the government's failure to act even more unacceptable.

This isn't new information, after all - back in 2010, a parliamentary report published all the finer details, which should have been a loud wake up call. But unlike other campaigns such the Department of Health's Stop Smoking, there hasn't been a big public awareness agenda to inform of this killer health issue.

After my daughter's first two stressful months in hospital, she was discharged. I started to relax into motherhood and felt elated to be a 'normal mum', walking in our local area with Sienna in her new pram. We'd often head out to the parks in North London -  but to get there I'd find myself walking along a part of the busy A1.  

Once I realised quite how vulnerable my daughter's brand new respiratory system was to all the nasties in the air, I started to search out alternative routes - but it's hard to avoid busy roads in London. I was shocked that, in all the advice offered to new parents, no-one had pointed out the dangers of air pollution.  At 18 months, Sienna was using an inhaler every day.

My Grandmother always said that she felt that prams and pushchairs today are scarily close to the ground - and all the awful stuff that is spewed from exhausts - compared to those in her day.

She could vividly remember bringing up two children in London before the Clean Air Act of 1956, their mouths and noses being caked with soot some mornings. But today's pollution, being invisible, is simply not considered by most parents.

We were lucky - we moved to Cheshire when Sienna was two and a half, and now live on the outskirts of a town.  I've really noticed the effect on her health - the inhaler comes out far less often, and it's no longer something that weighs on my mind as I go out of the door.

But I'm very aware that we can't all move out of the cities, and that's why I'm thrilled at yesterday's Supreme Court declaration that those in power had indeed failed in their duty to protect the British people from the harmful effects of air pollution.

But to ensure that the government acts and acts fast, we need people to speak out to demand a cleaner environment for our families. I want my child to step out of the house tomorrow and be able to breathe easy, whether she is in the countryside or the centre of Manchester.

We want parents to be heard by government, demanding cleaner air for our families. Sign up to the Healthy Air Campaign, or get in touch to find out what you can do to get involved."

CheesyPoofs Fri 03-May-13 12:32:18

I would like to see the scientific evidence you have that air pollution kills 29,000 people a year in the UK please?

Snorbs Fri 03-May-13 14:05:51

While I think air pollution is an important topic, I think you - and - are badly misrepresenting the research in saying that air pollution is killing 29,000 people a year.

That's most definitely not what the ComEAP report says.

It estimates that air pollution will reduce average life expectancy by six months. Multiply that by the UK's total population size and that's a combined reduction of 340,000 life-years. Divide that by average life expectancy and the report is saying that the six month reduction in average life expectancy caused by air pollution is equivalent to 29,000 deaths. It does not say that 29,000 people are actually killed by air pollution.

I can see how they derived that figure but I'm not sure it's necessarily meaningful. It also notes that this estimate is very vague - the reduction in average life expectancy could be as little as one month or as much as a year. They don't know.

Are you deliberately attempting to mislead us or did you just skim-read the report and not understand what the numbers actually meant?

HealthyAirCampaign Fri 03-May-13 14:14:50

Hi Cheesy Poofs

The 29,000 premature deaths figure is from the government's advisor, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, and is calculated in much the same way as the figures for obesity etc. See the report here:

I know it seems shocking and people do tend to question it when they hear it (they assume if it was that bad they'd know about it) but unfortunately it's very robust data and completely accepted by government and scientists.

The data on the children's lungs is also pretty strong - so far much of the research has been out of the UK but Kings College London have been carrying out a big study in East London looking at this and their research has yet to be formally published but certainly supports the same patterns - children that grow up near to busy roads can have reduced lung function as a result. See this one page report:

It's so important and this is why we'd like more people to understand it, protect their family and demand change! Get in touch if you'd like to know more,


HealthyAirCampaign Fri 03-May-13 14:21:29

Hi Snorbs

The piece from Clare Nasir refers to 29,00 premature deaths, not 'killing 29,000 people'. This was the summary from Mumsnet which was a logical summary to make but slightly different, and certainly not the wording of the Healthy Air Campaign.

We are advised by Kings College London (Frank Kelly of KCL is the chair of COMEAP) so we are confident that we are entirely accurate on the science and the content of the report.

This is the way that many health burdens are measured - just like obesity - it isn't that someone dies OF obesity, but the obesity makes it more likely for them to suffer from cardiovascular disease. That's exactly the same for air pollution, and the 29,000 deaths figure is in fact largely cardiovascular.

The 29,000 figure is at an average loss of life of 11.5 years - so it's not insignificant at all. It is 6 months off if you apply it to everyone in the UK.

I know people can sometimes be uncomfortable with this but I find it odd that no-one questions the obesity figures (I guess because it's very visible) and yet they are calculated in much the same way.

We are not trying to mislead anyone, unfortunately government have been misleading people on this subject for a long time, trying to play down the very significant health risks.


KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 03-May-13 14:57:50

Hello there

Apols - we've adjusted the headline now to reflect the research findings.

LineRunner Fri 03-May-13 15:56:23

What sort of change should we be demanding? I assume we are talking mainly about vehicle emission pollutants, so could the campaign be specific about whether it wants government and councils to take cars, vans and lorries off the roads in cities, and if so, how many and which ones.

HealthyAirCampaign Fri 03-May-13 17:03:31

Hi LineRunner

Good question - yes you're right that vehicles are the majority of the problem, and particularly diesel.

There are lots of things Government could do, such as develop a national framework of low emission zones which keep the dirtiest vehicles out of town and city centres. They've done the research and economic analysis on this ( and it's really cost effective but they are just dragging their feet. Also things like investing in green bus funds (costs money but stimulates economic growth) 20mph zones have benefits to air quality (and of course road safety) and anything that encourages increased cycling and walking.

We are producing guidance that helps communities to ask for the right things from local authorities, but what we most desperately need is political leadership from the top and lack of public awareness means there isn't so much incentive to act. Mumsnetters making clear that we want action to protect our families from harmful air pollution would be one of the most influential things!

LineRunner Fri 03-May-13 17:19:01

Hi again

Unfortunately this country has a long tradition of government 'taking a lead' by passing duties onto local authorities that these councils simply do not have the resources to undertake effectively, such as altering road infrastructure, introducing attractive (i.e. free) park-and-rides, or enforcing 20mph zones or vehicular bans.

You know and I know that government will give councils no new real funding for these programmes. In fact hasn't DEFRA reduced some grant funding for aspects of air quality monitoring in recent years?

Also, the motoring lobby is very powerful in this country, and so are the supermarkets and other companies that choose to use road haulage on a massive scale. Do you have a plan for taking on Clarkson and Tesco?!

infamouspoo Fri 03-May-13 17:26:31

you wont get p[eople out of cars even if 29000 people were actually keeling over in the street. The whining if someone has to walk more than one street and cant park 2 cm from school is incredible.

LadyIsabellaWrotham Fri 03-May-13 17:41:46

What impact has the new(ish) London Low Emission Zone had on pollution in the Greater London area? How much will the proposed Ultra Low Emission Zone help? (Londoners who are concerned about this issue should make it clear to Mayoral and GLA candidates that they will take plans for implementation of the ULEZ into consideration when they vote).

Is the Healthy Air Campaign calling for its spread to all the other big cities?

Personally, I am aware that it's a serious health issue, and in the back of my mind I think I know that even walking on the edge of the pavement furthest from the road can make a difference (if it's a wide pavement), and taking quieter, greener walking routes is defintely worthwhile. But what with one thing and another it's always the last risk on my mind on a busy day.

TheFallenNinja Fri 03-May-13 18:29:51

So where do these fines go? Into the Euro coffers to bail out other countries?

LineRunner Fri 03-May-13 18:49:19

Probably the passage of money will be from councils (who are struggling to keep Sure Start Centres open) to Europe, yes.

EthelredOnAGoodDay Fri 03-May-13 19:03:04

I work as a transport planner for a local highway authority (county council) and part of my role is supporting the district councils in our area to develop their air quality action plans. Because highway authorities do not receive any funding specifically for air quality improvement, nor are they subject to much scrutiny in terms of having air quality targets (because the responsibility lies with the environmental protection department) there is often little enthusiasm for projects to tackle air quality. It is certainly viewed in a completely different light to road safety.
My experience is also that local councillors only tend to become interested in this issue when they have lobbying group or some sort of residents' association kicking up a fuss about it. Otherwise, there isn't much interest.
My hope is that the threat of fines being passed down to local authorities may be enough to encourage councils to look more seriously at schemes focused on effecting a modal shift, rather than relying on traditional hard infrastructure schemes with limited benefits. However, there needs to be a change in attitudes and especially in these straitened times, it may not be easy to achieve...

HealthyAirCampaign Fri 03-May-13 22:56:39

LineRunner - completely agree that government pass the responsibility with none of the support needed. Economy is obviously a tricky area at the moment but the amount that air pollution costs the economy (Defra estimate £9-19 billion) means it's something we can't afford not to address. And it's of course true that the motor lobby have disproportionate influence on government policy - but this is why we need to increase pressure on government as much as we can. It's a tough battle but we refuse to give up and as you can see with the court case, progress is possible, and coupled with greater public demand for action it could make a lot of difference.

I should clarify that while fines are always something that gets seized upon, the emphasis of ClientEarth's case is really on driving action, and protecting people's health. As EthelredOnAGoodDay points out, it would be useful if the threat of fines was an incentive to government to actually DO something, but the main thrust of the case is in forcing government to come up with (and implement) plans that will achieve legal limits. The case after being referred to the European Court of Justice will revert to the UK Court who don't have power to fine anyway, and it looks likely now that they would provide a remedy - we just want things to change and air to stop containing dangerous levels of pollutants.

It's really interesting to hear from EthelredOnAGoodDay about the cultural issues and comparisons with road safety - great to hear that a local group making a fuss makes a difference. That's why we're trying to do things on every level - EU, national and legal, and vitally the local level.

LadyIsabellaWrotham - the London LEZ has not yet had as much impact as was hoped - but it has been implemented so slowly and half heartedly that it's still letting really old and dirty vehicles into the LEZ. We'd really welcome an Ultra Low Emission Zone, but the problem is that for now it's just a suggestion on the horizon for 2020 - but I have to say, at least Boris is admitting there is a problem that needs to be addressed, a far cry from Defra's bland statement which attempts to deny the problem even on a day where the Supreme Court have stated it. See here:

And you're right - position on the pavement can make a difference to your exposure, as can height. It's hard to make allowances when we all have so much else going on, and especially to break habits but I guess that's why the parent element is so important - even in the job I do I sometimes find myself taking a busy road when there is an alternative, but I suppose as a result of having read all the research I have, when I'm with my little boy it suddenly feels like a no brainer.

It's really great to hear from all of you, keep the comments coming.

fresh Sat 04-May-13 09:07:30

This has been a long standing problem in our town due to topography (main access into town has high walls/trees creating tunnel effect) and geography (we have the only river crossing for several miles). Traffic is seen as the biggest problem by residents. At the same time, when asked, very few people are prepared to get out of their cars to travel across town, seeing it as someone else's problem to solve. This is partly because it's unpleasant walking/cycling through town because of the traffic!

We're working with the local council to develop an Air Quality Plan but every potential solution inconveniences somebody and in this town that will mean a pressure group will be set up to argue about it.

My solution, and it's not for everybody, has been to order an electric car (Renault Zoe) which will mean I can drive with no carbon emissions. We have solar panels so if I'm organised I can charge it when the sun's out. We're also working with the council to get more charging points installed, and to look at providing some form of electric bus service. This is a long term project.

If you drive less than, say, 75 miles a day then an electric car is an option. Clarkson et al (and I have to say the BBC) are pretty unhelpful in putting facts across, so there's lots of misinformation out there. It's not a perfect solution as it still puts a car on the road, but in this town it makes sense purely from an air quality perspective.

Frandroid Sat 04-May-13 13:19:13

Hi fresh, I'd be interested in finding out more about how you have worked with the council - can I ask which council you are with? I belong to a residents group that was set up partly because we are worried about the effects of air pollution and a large development off the main road which is set to affect it even more. We are experiencing very similar problems - people drive because its dangerous and unpleasant walking along roads to school and also because of trying to get to work - time pressures. The air quality plan that the council has put together is basically a non-plan - there isn't a single action in it as far as I can tell! I have yet to feedback on it but I certainly will. I think its great you have bought an electric car, it wasn't something I considered because I didn't really think it was a possibility as I didn't know of any charging points etc.

Anyone who thinks that air quality isn't their problem I think is misguided - we should all be working together. If it doesn't affect you now you are lucky but it is affecting many people in the UK - we live in a village in Worcestershire and we have done a health survey - the results show clearly that people who live along the main roads are affected by worse colds, chest pains, sore itchy eyes, chest infections etc than those who live away from it.

I could tell walking to school along the main road with my two children, and keeping a health log, we all had much worse health during the periods of walking along the main road even for only 20 mins - 1/2 hour a day. Not sure what the solution is maybe public transport or cycle paths, electric cars but we need to be talking about it!

fresh Sat 04-May-13 17:34:48

Hi Frandroid - it's been such a longstanding problem here that the council have been trying to solve it for ages so it's not as if I've badgered them into it. Our town has been declared an Air Quality Management Area (because the emissions are above EU levels) which means they have to draft an Air Quality Action Plan. They announced some local meetings and I went along I'm on a steering group just by dint of turning up and being co-operative rather than shouty. If you pm me I'll tell you which county.

Ref charging points - most charging is done at home, and many vehicles can be charged from a 13amp socket (although a dedicated charging point is better). Renault have done a deal with British Gas so the price of the car includes the installation of a charging point - I have off street parking so this is fine. When out and about there is a growing network of charging points, and there are apps which will show you on a map where they are. The infrastructure is still sorting itself out, but here is a website with a map of all the free ones. So with a little forward planning you can do longer journeys. If you want to find out more, google Robert Llewellyn as he blogs about electric cars.

One of the big challenges for us with air quality is that many of the solutions talk about 'traffic management' i.e. sending the traffic elsewhere. This just moves the problem to someone else's doorstep, and if we discourage traffic through the town the retailers get upset. I firmly believe that changing the traffic to lower-polluting vehicles is a better bet. Hence the electric car.

thebestpossibletaste Sun 05-May-13 10:45:56

I'd love to drive an electric car as I only drive the few miles to work but the bus goes once an hour and doesn't get me there in time. However I just can't afford an electric car and am running a ten year old corsa until it falls apart because that's all I can afford. Some sort of help financing electric cars would be helpful.

LineRunner Sun 05-May-13 11:20:20

So it seems to me that the main problem is emissions from vehicles, especially older deisel and petrol vehicles.

The solution though - to take these vehicles off the roads (rather than simply divert them) - is economically impossible at a personal level, and politically impossible at the 'lobby' level. (Just look at how Cameron caved in over minimum alcohol pricing and fag packets.)

Does anything currently exist along the lines of a scheme providing cheap or interest-free loans to buy electric cars, with a 'bounty' for scrapping old high-emission cars?

infamouspoo Sun 05-May-13 12:48:40

Out of interest, why doesnt motability offer electric vehicles? Cost?

fresh Mon 06-May-13 08:06:22

At the moment the govt gives a £5k grant when you buy an electric car or van. This brings a Renault Zoe down to £13.5k because you lease the battery. I know this is still more than most people spend on a car but it makes it an easier choice if you were going for a new car anyway. I agree there should be more incentives, and I'd also like to see more electric buses. The problem has been the recharging time, but there are now fast charge models which can be recharged over a lunchtime break. Problem is they cost approx £200k each because they're the newest models so expecting a local council to invest just now is a non-starter. We have a filthy diesel bus which does a circular route around town and only ever has a handful of people on it. We're looking into getting a fleet of smaller 7-seat EV's to run instead but again this has a capital cost, and needs huge amounts of planning.

clickityclackity Mon 06-May-13 09:27:16

Well as an asthmatic I'm very very concerned about air pollution. I often say that if everybody had a respiratory disease they'd notice how bad the air quality is because they would be more sensitive to its effects. Sometimes I wake up and can tell instantly that the air quality is worse than it was a few days ago.

If I go shopping in Oxford street or the town centre I always end up using my inhaler. I try hard to avoid travelling anywhere by car or bus and tend to use the train as much as possible. The summer months are particularly difficult when you have this hot dense haze of polluted air that is not moving anywhere.

I became extremely aware of how much we Londoners are suffering when I went to Cornwall for a brief holiday and found I could actually breathe properly for the first time. Coming back as soon as we passed Reading I felt my chest tightening up again. The effects on children are devastating, and frankly I believe that 29,000 deaths is an BIG under- estimation as so many asthmatics alone are affected by this; plus breathing in polluted air must surely be affecting our health in other negative ways. Breathing is as essential as drinking water is. If a person drank dirty water day in and day out they'd experience severe effects over a long period of time.

I can't move out of London and worry that my health is deteriorating due to this problem. Unfortunately it's not a 'trendy' issue. Plus everybody likes their cars etc so it's difficult to create that incentive to tackle it.

I hope one day to be able to move out of London.

clickityclackity Mon 06-May-13 09:36:37

I think electric cars are perhaps one way of going forward. But to make any quantifiable difference there would have to be a large shift away from using diesel, not just one or two vehicles here and there plus load carrying vehicles like trucks, vans etc and I can't see that happening in my life time.

I'm afraid that we are all going to have to start getting ill before we have the will to really change things.

BackOnlyBriefly Mon 06-May-13 09:57:21

I'm waiting for the huge public demand to do something like there was about smoking.

How about a thread on "my neighbour insists on parking near my garden where my kids play" smile

When it came up before (air pollution is not really news) people basically said that they needed their car so how it affected others wasn't their problem.

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