Briefing - The health effects of air pollution: time to act

European and global health leaders are increasingly concerned about the toll that air pollution is taking on human health. In the UK it is estimated that 40,000 - 50,000 premature deaths each year are linked to air pollution, while the EU estimates that air pollution is responsible for more than 500,000 premature deaths across Europe annually. Worldwide, the number of premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution is estimated to be three million by the World Health Organization. The Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health concluded in 2016 that indoor and outdoor air pollution costs the UK economy around £20bn per year in terms of healthcare costs, premature illness and the impact on business.

The scale of cardiorespiratory morbidity and mortality caused by outdoor air pollution is now widely acknowledged to be considerable, with other diseases such as a range of cancers, now also being linked to air pollution.

This briefing focuses on outdoor air pollution - in particular, the impacts of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulates on human health. However other forms of air pollution, including heavy metals, can also have an impact on health at low levels. For some pollutants there are no safe limits.

“This paper on the health effects of air pollution from Policy Connect comes at a significant time. We are beginning to understand the full effects of air pollution on a whole range of health conditions from lung and heart disease to cancer, and urgent action is now needed by the Government to get emissions down, especially from highly polluting diesel vehicles. With an estimated 40,000 premature deaths in the UK caused by the effects of outdoor air pollution each year, the impact of air pollution on health and its cost to the economy is moving towards the 80,000 annual deaths linked to smoking.”

Geraint Davies, Member of Parliament for Swansea West, and promoter of the Clean Air Bill (2017-19).