Friday, 15 June 2018

The Government’s new Clean Air Strategy – hope or hype?

Dr Susan Hodgson, lecturer in Environmental Epidemiology and Exposure Assessment at the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health, Imperial College London

© 2018 Imperial College London
Air pollution was been high on the agenda at Imperial College London recently, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove choosing to launch the Government’s new Clear Air Strategy at Imperial’s Data Science Institute[1]. To coincide with this launch, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a new tool, developed by Imperial and the UK Health Forum, to help local authorities estimate the health-care costs due to air pollution - an estimated £157 million from exposure to fine particulates and nitrogen dioxide across England in 2017[2].

Academics and researchers worldwide have worked over many decades to produce an evidence base of high quality research which now clearly links air pollution and health. Globally, 4.2 million deaths are attributed to outdoor air pollution, with 91% of the world’s population living in areas where air quality exceeds health-based guidance limits[3]. Figures for the UK also make grim reading, with an estimated 40,000 deaths per year attributable to outdoor air pollution[4]. While research on this topic makes an unequivocal case for action, Government policy to improve air quality for public health has been found lacking, with the UK (along with France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania) being taken to the European court of Justice for failing to meet EU limits for nitrogen dioxide.

© 2018 Imperial College London
The new Clear Air Strategy[5] outlines how the Government plans to protect the nation’s health. The stated intention of halving the number of people living where concentrations of fine particulate matter are above 10μg/m3 - the concentration of an air pollutant is given in micrograms (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic meter air or 'µg/m3' - by 2025, if achieved, would reap a significant health dividend. However, the focus on a ‘personal air quality messaging system to inform the public…about the air quality forecast [and] air pollution episodes’ places onus on individuals to avoid exposure, rather than creating clean and safe environments within which to live. While there is a place for such messaging, when more than 2000 education/childcare providers across England and Wales are within 150m of a road breaching the legal limit for Nitrogen dioxide pollution (25 of which are in the North East and more than 1500 in London)[6], is it clear that a population based approach is required to tackle this pressing public health issue.

The Strategy also restates the previously announced plan to phase out conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, to be replaced by zero exhaust emissions vehicles. This is a positive step, but not sufficient to tackle traffic-related pollution. What comes out of the exhaust represents less than half of vehicle emissions; ‘clean’ vehicles will still generate pollution from tyre and brake wear, and re-suspension of road dust, as explained by Imperial PhD student Liza Selley in her 2016 Max Perutz Science Writing Award-winning essay[7].

The Strategy proposes steps to address not just road traffic pollution, but also shipping, aviation, agriculture and industry, and links health, the environment and economy, marking a welcome move away from silo thinking. There is also mention of ‘appraisal tools and accompanying guidance…to enable the health impacts of air pollution to be considered in every relevant policy decision that is made’ – it is not clear if this extends beyond policy decisions on air pollution, i.e. represents a move towards a coherent ‘health in all’ approach[8], but, if so, would represent a welcome prioritisation of health across Government departments.

© 2018 Imperial College London
Focussing on cleaner vehicles and technological solutions can only offer a partial solution to reducing the impact of air pollution on health, so it is good to see modal shift towards public transport and active transport is mentioned (briefly) in the Strategy. There are funds to support bus and rail infrastructure to improve public transport, and an ambition to double the levels of cycling by 2025 - though this would only raise levels from 2% to 4%, compared to 39% in the Netherlands[9].

If the Government is serious about adopting a more holistic approach to the environment, health and economy, then I feel far more could have been made of the great potential to tackle air quality, sustainability and health collectively. We need ambition and vision to create sustainable cities, and approaches to transport and living that reduce air pollution and additionally tackle inactivity and obesity, which are key drivers of population health. Barcelona’s Institute for Global Health recently launched its #CitiesWeWant initiative[10], which highlights some of the features we need to be prioritising in our cities to benefit future health and wellbeing. We have the research evidence to support these priorities, but Governments will require buy-in from experts and demand from the public to enact bold change. Those passionate about improving our environment for health have the opportunity to voice their views via the Government consultation on this newly launched Clear Air Strategy, which will inform a National Air Pollution Control Programme due March 2019.

The views represented here are those of the author, Dr Susan Hodgson.

Susan is a lecturer in environmental epidemiology and exposure assessment at the MRC- PHE Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College London. Her research focusses on understanding how interactions with our environment (including air pollution), influences health.

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