Air Pollution Is Killing Us

David Kinane for Distilled Post

An Environmental Research Group at Imperial College has published a new meta-analysis of over 35,000 studies from the past 10 years. Overall their work has brought to light some incredibly startling conclusions about the impact of air pollution on our health. 

According to the paper air pollution negatively impacts people at all stages of life, from the prenatal stage of life, up until adulthood. These effects range from exacerbating pre-existing health conditions such as asthma to a potential contributing cause of cancer. 

It has long been understood dating back to the 1930s that air pollution poses a health risk to anyone who breathes it in. The World Health Organisation for example has already declared that air pollution is a global health emergency, and compared its impact to having an unhealthy diet or an addiction to tobacco. 

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has also previously analysed the effects of air pollution. In 2016, they summarised their findings in a report titled “Every Breath We Take: the lifelong impacts of air pollution”. According to their study around 40,000 deaths in the U.K. each year are attributable to air pollution. They also estimate that the cost on our health service and businesses affected by the problem adds up to around £20 billion a year. 

Imperial College Study 

The new report from Imperial College discusses both the short term and long term effects of air pollution at every stage of a human development. It finds that at early stages of life, air pollution can cause abnormal foetal development, miscarriages, a low birth weight or sperm count and can encourage premature births. 

In children up to the age of adolescence, the effects can vary from affecting lung growth, causing asthma or low blood pressure, affecting cognitive ability, inattention or hyperactivity and even impacting a child’s mental health. 

In adults the effects are worse. A correlation exists between air pollution and poor cardiovascular health, respiratory health, cancer, several chronic illnesses and brain and mental health. All of which are known to contribute to a number of premature deaths across the country. 

Most of the effects of air pollution are attributable to PM2.5 — a small particle that passes into our bodies through our nose and mouth — and nitrogen dioxide both of these pollutants come from vehicle exhausts. 

According to the study, all of those in populated areas such as London will be affected. It states “… the current levels of air pollution in London will affect all citizens, including those living in the least polluted suburbs, and especially those with pre-existing vulnerabilities”. 

Impact on public policy

There is also a section of the paper which discusses the impacts these findings have on public policy. The authors stress that there is no evidence to support the idea — though widely discussed in public policy solutions — that there exists a “threshold” below which there is a safe and acceptable level of air pollution. 

They further emphasise the need to provide the public with accurate information that is actionable and can help reduce their own exposure to pollution and to target populations that are particularly vulnerable, such as around schools for instance. It is also widely recognised that children (due to having smaller airways) are at a particular risk of health problems. In 2013 for instance Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah became the first person in the U.K. to have her cause of death listed as air pollution. She died from an asthma attack that was brought on by breathing in toxic traffic fumes. Ella was only nine years old when she died. 

The report calls for action by all levels of government to reduce emissions as the most important contribution to tackling the problem.