Toxic air remains main environmental concern

New research from the Institute of Occupational Medicine has claimed that evidence shows that government action can cut air pollution, but more needs to be done.

The long-term study concludes that policies to clean up air pollution in the UK over the past 40 years have led to significant reductions in human exposure to air pollution and associated mortality rates.

Between 1970 and 2010, total annual emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) in the UK all reduced substantially, in part as the result of landmark policies, such as the UK Clean Air Act 1993 and the UK Environment Act 1995.

Consequently, mortality effects due to exposure to air pollution have dropped by 44 per cent and 56 per cent for NO2 and PM2.5, respectively between 1970 and 2010. For O3, attributable respiratory mortality in 2010 was 17 per cent higher than it was in 1970, despite a decline by 24 per cent compared to 1990.

But whilst tackling air pollution in the UK has resulted in some substantial public health benefits, it remains an ongoing challenge. Nitrogen dioxide concentrations are still often above legal limits in many urban areas and levels of ammonia emissions are increasing. Currently, around five per cent of all deaths in the UK are attributed to air pollution.

Sotiris Vardoulakis of the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, said: “This study highlights the substantial improvements in air quality we have experienced over four decades, as well as the risks that air pollution still poses to public health in the UK. Concerted action is needed by the Government, local authorities, businesses and individuals to further improve air quality and protect human health.”

Edward Carnell,  lead author of the study, said: “Technology advances over the past 40 years, such as the three-way catalytic converter for cars and equipment to reduce sulphur and nitrogen dioxide emissions from large power plants have contributed to significant reductions in emission levels and therefore improved public health. However, it is legislation that has driven these technological improvements.

“Our results demonstrate the effectiveness of a series of policies at UK and European level since 1970 and this research supports policy-makers’ efforts to continue implementing much-needed measures to further improve air quality.”