New report shows harmful impact of air pollution at all stages of life

Image above:  Londoners at risk from elevated pollution levels due to the cold, still, and foggy conditions

Air pollution harms foetal development and causes premature deaths, say scientists at Imperial College

A new report on air pollution by researchers at Imperial College London shows it has harmful effects on people at all stages of life from prenatal to old age.

The report, which gives the fullest picture of the impact of air pollution on health yet, found exposure to certain particles could lead to miscarriages, cause low sperm count and stunt children’s lung growth. Later in adulthood, it can also cause chronic illnesses, cancer and strokes.

The team from the Environmental Research Group at Imperial, commissioned by the Greater London Authority, looked at evidence from more than 35,000 studies over ten years.

They found children are particularly vulnerable to harmful effects of air pollution caused by traffic. Children living in London are particularly at risk of developing lifelong, chronic conditions, including poorly developed lungs, asthma, high blood pressure, inattention and hyperactivity, and mental illness.

Air pollution can also impair normal foetal development in the womb, increasing the risk of miscarriage, low birth weight and pre-term births.

Researchers identified particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – both of which come from vehicle exhausts – as particularly harmful. Hounslow, Ealing and Hammersmith & Fulham are all way over the European limit for acceptable air pollution.

Image above: Traffic; library photograph

Justification for ULEZ expansion

The Mayor’s office sees this as all the evidence it needs to justify the extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone, which is being extended to all outer London boroughs in August, despite opposition from some local councils.

Four London borough councils – Hillingdon, Bexley, Bromley, Harrow – and Surrey county council are challenging the ULEZ expansion policy in court.

“Sadiq Khan has been at the forefront of the mission to clean up London’s toxic air” say the Mayor’s office.

“The introduction of the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone has already resulted in a 21% reduction in harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations in inner London and a 46 per cent reduction in central London.

“The expansion of the ULEZ to outer London this August will lead to five million more Londoners being able to breathe cleaner air.”

Image above: Air pollution; photograph Imperial College London

Chronic diseases costing the country billions

The authors of the research commented:

“Policies should be aimed at reducing the accumulating harm from air pollution and the health degradation, in addition to protecting people who have become vulnerable to current pollution concentrations.”

“While headline figures on the health impact of air pollution focus on the equivalent number of premature deaths, the wider impacts are hiding in plain sight in the contribution of air pollution to the burden of chronic diseases.”

In 2018 Public Health England (PHE) estimated that up to 43,000 people a year are dying in the UK because of air pollution and that it could cost the country as much as £18.6 billion by 2035 unless action is taken.

You can read the full report by Imperial College, London, Environmental Research Group here: Impact of air pollution across the life course