The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has today published research that shows 44 UK cities are in breach of recommended World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for air quality.
According to the RCP’s report in 2016 ambient air pollution contributed to approximately 40,000 premature deaths, over 6 million sick days and an estimated total social cost of £22.6 billion per year.
The RCP has now called on the government and local authorities to adopt a comprehensive policy package, including clean air zones, which will hopefully have a positive impact on the nation’s health and in time will save lives.
“We know that high exposures in early life have a major effect on lung and cognitive development throughout an individual’s life – that is why it is the government’s duty to improve the air we breathe and to ensure that people across the UK are not exposed to such a preventable cause of death and illness,” said The RCP’s lead on sustainability, Dr Toby Hillman.
“Addressing climate change and poor air quality isn’t a burden or cost, but fundamentally an opportunity we should grasp with both hands.”
In its research – conducted in collaboration with Lancet Countdown – the RCP highlighted the fact that the government is currently falling well short in investing in sustainable modes of travel, like walking, cycling, public transport and electric vehicles.
As the RCP points out, all of these methods of getting around have the potential to unlock many health opportunities and would provide an average social return on investment of approximately £5.50 per £1 spent.
“The UK is leading the way internationally on many areas of climate and health – with the recent T-charge a good example. Yet it continues to miss the glaring opportunities that can be implemented today with highly substantial benefit,” said the RCP’s special adviser on air quality, professor Stephen Holgate.
“As the RCP and Lancet Countdown research shows, climate change is here and a health issue today. More can and should be done. The benefits for an overstretched health service alone are justification, but it is clear that the benefits of action will be felt much more widely, both economically and for those most affected by air pollution.”
Despite its immense public health potential, active travel investment currently represents only a tiny fraction of the £32 billion spent on transport annually.
As of 2017, average UK-wide public spending on walking and cycling is £287 million per year, which amounts to £4.30 per head, but, according to the Department for Transport, this number will fall to only £147 million by 2020.
At the same time, and as the RCP points out in its report, air pollution contributes to many chronic health problems: particularly respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, with growing evidence of effects on other diseases including strokes and dementia.