Air pollution and climate change pose significant threats to public health. Exposure to air pollution, including fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, is associated with a wide range of adverse health impacts - it has been estimated that around 40,000 deaths a year in the UK are attributable to outdoor air pollution. Potential adverse health consequences of climate change include an increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, extreme storms and heatwaves; the spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue to new locations; worsening nutrition resulting from decreased agricultural productivity and higher global food prices; rising sea levels and associated population displacement; and an exacerbation of poverty and inequalities.
"Doctors are increasingly aware of the different impacts of air pollution on their patients' health; not just the lungs, but on heart disease, diabetes and dementia."
Reducing and mitigating the impact of air pollution and climate change requires sustained and collaborative action globally, nationally and locally. The BMA is a founding member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, a coalition of health professionals advocating to protect the public’s health in response to these health threats. The Alliance set out key steps to improve air quality and tackle climate change in its 2016 report A breath of Fresh Air: Addressing Climate Change and Air Pollution Together for Health. As shown in this report, it is beneficial to tackle air pollution and climate change together, as in many cases they share a common driver – the combustion of fossil fuels.
Tackling air pollution and climate change is vital for protecting some of the most vulnerable in society, while also reducing the burden on health services.
What can policy makers do to reduce air pollution and climate change?
- Fund and create infrastructure that is energy-efficient, and facilitates environmentally-friendly behaviour. This includes transport infrastructure that will reduce the use of polluting vehicles and enable active travel - such as cycle lanes and safe areas for walking.
- Introduce legislative change aimed at reducing air pollution and climate change, including:
- legislating the phase-out of coal by 2025
- expanding ultra-low emission zones
- continuing to implement vehicle taxation to discourage the use of diesel and petrol
- offering financial assistance to switch to hybrid and electric vehicles
- proving clearer information for consumers on emissions produced by new vehicles, including ultrafine particles and oxides of nitrogen
- Empowering local authorities to take action on air pollution, by providing them with the necessary regulatory powers to do so.
- Fund further research into the economic and health impacts of air pollution and climate change (over the short and long-term). Create systems to regularly monitor air pollution, including testing car emissions and tracking exposure to harmful pollutants in major urban areas (particularly around schools and hospitals.).
The role of the NHS
To tackle air pollution and climate change, the NHS should become an exemplar for clean air and safe workplaces. This could include:
- Ensuring that all transport associated with the NHS is environmentally-friendly. All NHS vehicles should be required to meet certain criteria for minimising air pollution, for example by having to switch from diesel and petrol, to hybrid and electric vehicles within a certain timeframe (this will require investment in building charge ports around all NHS sites). Employees should be encouraged to use environmentally-friendly methods of transport, by being provided with cycle to work schemes and bike facilities, car pool schemes and hospital shuttles.
- Air pollution associated with NHS procurement should be monitored regularly. NHS trusts should have to report this data and their progress on air pollution against their Sustainable Development Management Plans.
- As the NHS is one of the UK’s most energy-intensive organisations, NHS trusts should be supported in becoming more energy-efficient. They should continue to switch to clean energy providers, and adopt on-site renewables where possible.
What can you do?
As well as supporting patients directly, doctors can play a key role in advocating about the health risks of air pollution. They can advocate about this in an accessible way, to policymakers and the public – to encourage subsequent pressure on the Government.
Support for taking action