Government reveals plans to improve health through air pollution curbs

Pollutants can exacerbate the effects of conditions such as asthma

The Government has set out a series of measures to tackle air pollution, which it has claimed is one of the biggest risks to public health.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said air pollution was the fourth biggest health threat after cancer, obesity and heart disease, and caused more harm than passive smoking.

It posed a particular risk to those suffering from conditions such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, with the elderly, pregnant women and the very young the most vulnerable.

Through the delivery of its new Clean Air Plan, published today, Defra proposed to halve the population living in areas where particulate matter – one of the most harmful pollutants – exceeds the World Health Organization guideline limit of 10 µg/m3 by 2025.

Particulate matter – tiny toxic particles from smoke, dust and soot – can get into the lungs and blood and can be transported around the body to become embedded into the heart, brain and other organs.

According to the Government’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, the current level of particulate matter across the UK could result in lives being cut short by 340,000 years in total.

In addition to reducing pollutants from industry, transport and agriculture, Defra has proposed the introduction of a personal air quality messaging system to inform the public, particularly those who are most vulnerable, about the air quality forecast. The messaging system will also provide health advice.

It also to hoped introduce legislation to allow local authorities to improve air quality, and will publish updated appraisal tools and guidance this summer to enable the health effects of air pollution to be considered in every relevant policy decision.

Environment secretary Michael Gove noted that air pollution was still making people ill and shortening lives 60 years since the Clean Air Act was introduced.

“Government cannot act alone in tackling air pollution. Our strategy sets out how we will work with businesses, farmers, industry and households to develop innovative new solutions to reduce emissions. It also highlights how we can all take action and play an important role in cleaning up our air,” he said.

Meanwhile, Defra has revealed plans for a tool that will allow local authorities to measure the economic impact of poor air quality in their area, which is being developed by Imperial College and the UK Health Forum. It will allow councils to work out the cumulative cost for diseases where there is a strong association with air pollution, including coronary heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and child asthma.

Health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “Our health service can only go so far in treating the conditions that dirty air can contribute to, and we have a responsibility to stop this issue at source. Today’s Clean Air Strategy and Air Pollution Tool do just that, taking a giant step towards cleaning up our air for good.”

The consultation into Defra’s air quality plans closes on 14 August.

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