by Aldo Mussi, Tutor in Health Promotion/Public Health.
“The time has now arrived to take air pollution, as currently encountered in the UK, much more seriously. It should be considered a major public health problem”, according to a new report featured in The Lancet.
60 years on from the first Clean Air Act, this is the latest ‘inconvenient truth’ about our lethally sub-standard air quality, which the UK government will find ever harder to ignore. It’s been known for some time (but little discussed) that 29,000 per year die early due to inhaling particulates (invisibly-small specs of soot), mainly from diesel engines. The report now shows that the total increases to 40,000 when we add in the early deaths due to nitrogen oxide poisoning from exhausts. The effect of these toxins on the human body is mainly seen as heart and respiratory disease, stroke and lung cancer.
Motorists have some cause to feel confused: The ‘switch to diesel’ encouraged by governments over the last decade or so was based on the still-sound evidence that diesel engines produce less greenhouse gas pollution than petrol. That’s still important – but what wasn’t known then, is the level of disease caused by diesels, especially in towns. Both types of engine are harming us, in slightly different ways.
The report goes on to look at the additional early deaths from indoor air pollution. While second-hand smoke, faulty gas heaters and radon have long been recognised, the authors call for more attention to be given to the less-discussed threats from sources such as air ‘fresheners’ or other chemicals such as in deodorants and hairsprays, or from faulty log burners. It seems that more action is needed to enable people, and especially children, to enjoy clean air indoors.
So, some actions we could take as a country could include :
- For the government to stop acting illegally (costing us in fines as well as deaths), and comply with legally-safe levels of air quality.
- For ministers to stop costing our economy £20 billion per year from their failure to create a safe, accessible and interconnected transport system.
- Where private vehicles are seen as necessary, encourage diesel vehicles for long-haul journeys only, and in towns move to more low-emission options such as no cars, electric (renewable) cars or at the very least, high-efficiency petrol cars. Diesel buses, trains and taxis will become a thing of the past.
- For more councils to follow the example of Solihull, as the first authority in England to start restricting traffic volumes around schools – and on air quality grounds, not just to limit crashes.
- Make it easier for people to wean themselves off their car habits, and make our roads less hostile to non-drivers. As my students know, ‘making the healthy choice the easy choice’ has long been a mainstay of individual behaviour change.
- Do more research into the effects of household and ‘personal care’ chemicals, and fumes from heaters. A social marketing campaign to raise awareness of this may be necessary.
- For the Public Health community to give as much attention to ‘unfashionable’ hazards such as vehicle emission poisoning, as they do to comparable hazards such as tobacco and alcohol. Our BSc and MSc students here at BCU already do this, so it’s one reassurance that they’ll be part of the future workforce.
- For all of us to ensure the authorities are held accountable for protecting our health from avoidable hazards. (Who will you let in at the next election?)
Details of BCU’s BSc and MSc courses in Public Health can be found at : www.bcu.ac.uk