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Does air pollution kill? Yes, it does.

February 17th, 2017 by Alistair Murray

On Monday 23rd January 2017, Sadiq Khan, current Mayor of London, issued a ‘black alert’ warning Londoners about very high levels of air pollution.

Just three weeks later, on Wednesday 15th February, the European Commission issued the UK with a ‘final warning’ over breaches of air pollution limits.

With air pollution reaching record highs across the UK, it’s no wonder that many of us living with chronic conditions are worried for our health.

The following article is intended to serve as a guide on how best to avoid inhaling the toxic air currently choking up the capital, and to give an insight into how air pollution has become so bad in England’s largest city.

A brief history of UK air pollution

65 years ago, London truly earned the nickname ‘The Big Smoke’.

In early December 1952, a combination of windless weather conditions and air pollution (mainly from burning coal) created the conditions for toxic pea soup smog. Though estimates vary, it’s now thought that at least 4,000 people died as a result of this episode, over just a few days.

Four years later, the 1956 Clean Air Act was passed in an effort to address the causes of air pollution. Most notably, a policy was enforced to create clean air zones and only allow smokeless coal to be burned. The hope was that this would clean up the air and improve people’s health.

Yet here we are in 2017, with the Mayor telling us to stay indoors if we want to keep healthy.

The growth in the amount of vehicles on the road in England is sending pollution levels soaring and new sources of emissions mean that we now have hazardous levels of particulates, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and sulphur dioxide in our atmosphere.

The recent scandal involving several car manufacturers under-reporting their emissions data only serves to further highlight that air pollution is quickly getting out of our control, as we’re blindly lead down a path similar to the one travelled by our forefathers in 1952.

Short-term effects of air pollution on health

DEFRA (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) have noted that people  with lung or heart conditions and people of an older age are the people whose health tends to suffer most when air pollution levels are high.

The government organisation also highlights that:

“... adults and children with asthma may notice that they need to increase their use of inhaled reliever medication on days when levels of air pollution are higher than average.”

If you or someone you know has a heart or lung condition, the following list of suggestions (as adapted from guidelines provided by The British Lung Foundation) should help you reduce your exposure to contamination on days when pollution levels are particularly high for short periods:

1. Take exercise indoors. You’ll reduce your chances of inhaling contaminated air if swap the tarmac for an indoor treadmill in a space that is well-ventilated.

2. Avoid areas where pollution is likely to build up in a small space, with little chance to escape. Areas like these include main roads and road junctions.

3. Leave earlier for work. Getting through traffic and inside your office building before rush hour has begun will decrease your chances of inhaling any pollution that has been given the opportunity to build up throughout the morning.

4. If you cycle, run or walk to work, change your route to include more back streets. This should help you avoid the road vehicles emitting the pollutants that could aggravate your condition.

5. If you drive to work, close the windows of your car.

6. Contact your doctor or GP if you notice your symptoms getting worse.

The British Lung Foundation also specifically reminds people with lung conditions to keep their reliever inhalers with them at all times and to use their preventer inhalers regularly on days when air pollution levels are high.


Long-term effects of air pollution on health

Most of us know that car pollutants are carcinogenic, which means that they can increase our risk of developing certain types of cancer.

But you may not be aware that traffic pollution from main roads has also been linked to an increased likelihood of developing certain types of dementia.

In January 2017, a study published by The Lancet found that people living closest to major traffic throughways were up to 12% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

Rob Howard, a professor of old age psychiatry at University College London, told The Guardian:

“We know that major road air pollution is bad for general health and this latest study doesn’t tell us whether the small increase in dementia risk is driven by indirect effects or whether proximity to traffic directly influences dementia pathology. Regardless of the route of causation, this study presents one more important reason why we must clean up the air in our cities.”

Air pollution and reduced life expectancy

In the UK, it is estimated that pollution reduces the average life expectancy of men and women by as much as 6 months, according to a DEFRA report.

Figures provided by The Royal College of Physicians further demonstrate that 40,000 deaths per year are caused by air pollution in the UK, and this is just an average estimation.

As a clinical pharmacist, I believe that some people could stand to lose as much as ten years of their life (if not more) to air contamination.

Listening to the advice of your doctors, pharmacists, nurses, physiotherapists, and other people involved in your care will help to keep any chronic conditions you may have under control if you live in an area where it is largely impossible to avoid high pollution levels.


How to combat air pollution

We can all take steps to look at how our own behaviour is contributing to increased levels of pollution, but to affect nationwide change, we need to take collective action and we need to do this sooner rather than later.

One way of voicing your concerns about air pollution is to sign the Greenpeace petition calling on the UK government to cut toxic diesel emissions.

Alternatively, you can contact your local MP to voice your grievances with air pollution, using the UK Parliament website to search for your local MP’s email address.

If you would like to receive alerts about air quality via text, email or app alerts, you can also sign up to services like airTEXT. Or you can download the Met Office Weather App.

Taking a stand against air pollution is an important step in the right direction for all our health, and getting involved has never been more important.

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