An opportunity to clean up our air

by Latifa Patel

Time to tackle pollution caused by road vehicles

Location: UK
Published: Wednesday 12 June 2024
climate change

20 June marks Clean Air Day – a day where we can all come together to highlight the integral need for UK Governments to commit to addressing the high levels of air pollution we live with. We know that tackling air pollution can lead to significant health benefits for everyone – including an improvement in some respiratory diseases in children and adults (1/2). 

A good start to this will be to clean up the pollution caused by road transport. Cars and vans are the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and some types of air pollution in the UK, including harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution which mostly comes from motor vehicles (3/4).

Doctors and healthcare workers see first-hand the very real health effects climate change and the failure to tackle critical issues such as air pollution have on our patients every day. The list of associated conditions that air pollution can cause is exhaustive – increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, diabetes, neurological disorders, adverse pregnancy outcomes, depression and anxiety.

We also remember the tragic death of the nine-year-old girl from severe asthma, and the coroner who made legal history in 2020 by ruling that air pollution was a cause. We all have a duty to add our voices in highlighting the seriousness of air pollution as a public health issue.

That is why the BMA is supporting Global Action Plan’s Clean Air Day campaign calling for the new Government to make a significant contribution to improving air quality and our health by ensuring that everyone can travel in safer and greener ways. For example, if everyone switched just one car journey a month for a bus trip, there would be a billion fewer car journeys each year in the UK (5).

Although we are all exposed to the health risks of air pollution, the impacts are not felt equally. Across England, people in the most deprived groups of society typically live in locations with the highest emissions of air pollution. This is because they often live in less desirable locations, such as near busy roads. There is also a major concern for children as many primary schools are often located near busy roads. For example, in London 80% of primary schools were found to be located in deprived areas that exceeded legal limits for NO2 pollution (6).

Health professionals are important advocates for change. We can encourage colleagues and patients to make sustainable transport choices. However, to do this confidently we need the Government to make public transport more accessible and affordable, more reliable and more efficient. It must commit to making sustainable transport options such as walking and cycling much safer.

With the general election approaching in July, there is an opportunity for the new Government to have a significant effect on improving public health by tackling transport pollution. This includes:

  • An integrated transport strategy for England which targets improvements in the nation’s health and better access to jobs and education, as well as climate, clean air and better neighbourhoods. This will have walking, wheeling and cycling and a thriving public transport network for all at its heart
  • Require all new housing developments to provide affordable, accessible, and frequent public transport links, as well as safe, routes for walking, wheeling and cycling from the outset
  • Shift investment to public transport and active travel so communities can have minimum levels of reliable, affordable bus services and safe walking and cycling options
  • Reform rail fares and ticketing including simplifying fares, ensuring consistency across the network and improving the availability of affordable prices throughout the day
  • Keep pavements free of cars by granting councils the powers to stop vehicles being parked on pavements.

The BMA and our members recognise the important role we can play in tackling climate change and air pollution. We must educate our patients and the public on the importance of sustainable choices and ensure our Government implements the infrastructure to enable the public to put these choices into action.

Sign Global Action Plan’s Clean Air Day petition


Dr Latifa Patel is the BMA representative body chair