More than five percent of deaths in England are attributable to long-term exposure to particulate air pollution. This makes the impact of air pollution on the public’s health very significant indeed.
Road traffic is a major source of air pollutants. We know that the nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter emitted from car exhausts have a direct impact on our health.
Short-term exposure (over hours or days) to traffic-related air pollution can trigger asthma attacks. Long-term exposure (over several years) has been found to reduce life-expectancy, mainly due to an increased risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
The draft guidance from NICE, which PHE contributed to through membership of the advisory committee, seeks to improve air quality across England. It highlights the importance of including air pollution in strategic planning across local authority boundaries.
There are a range of actions local authorities can take to tackle air pollution. The draft NICE guidance suggests that by minimising the need for motorised travel in new developments, and by providing an infrastructure that will support low and zero emission travel (such as improved cycling and walking routes and charge points for electric vehicles), and by restricting access for polluting vehicles, they can create clean air zones, which will benefit all who live there.
On average, transport contributes around 80% of the nitrogen oxide emissions in areas where we know the UK is exceeding European limits for air quality. The largest source of these emissions come from diesel cars and vans.
Businesses can play an important role in improving the quality of our air by encouraging their employees to make small changes, like switching off their engines during deliveries.
The draft NICE guidance states that, at an individual level, a key priority for improving air quality is to encourage active travel (walking and cycling).
This will not only reduce car journeys and vehicle emissions but also encourage increased physical activity, which helps to prevent obesity and excess weight gain, and also reduces the risk of many chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, mental health problems and musculoskeletal conditions. Proof that by tackling air quality we can also promote healthy communities and neighbourhoods.
It is clear that everyone will need to do their bit if we are to significantly improve air quality. The combined impact of actions taken by national and local government, large and small businesses and individuals can greatly improve our health and the environment.