Air quality and health
Air pollution is a familiar environmental health hazard and can cause significant health impacts.
We have produced an online awareness brief to provide basic information about air pollution and health, as well as what people can do to protect themselves.
Air pollution causes thousands of premature deaths nationally. Unlike the thick London smog of the mid twentieth century, today’s air pollution episodes have become 'more invisible' and less obvious to those affected.
The make-up of air pollution has shifted towards smaller particulate material, making it harder to detect and therefore of great concern. Increasing evidence indicates that air pollution could have a broad range of adverse health effects.
Exposure to air pollution
Epidemiological studies have shown that long-term exposure to air pollution over many years reduces life expectancy. This is mainly due to cardiovascular and respiratory causes including lung cancer.
Short-term exposure over hours or days to elevated levels of air pollution can also cause a range of effects. This includes exacerbation of asthma, effects on lung function, increase in respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions and mortality.
More recent research is recognising that the systemic effects of pollutants extend beyond the cardiopulmonary system to affect many other organs. This increases the risk of disease that begins from conception and persists across the whole life course, with research showing possible effects on cognitive function, low birth weight, and diabetes.
Air pollution can affect everyone. People who are more likely to be vulnerable in terms of health include:
- Pregnant women
- Babies and young children
- Older people aged over 60
- People with chronic health problems - including those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes
Research also identifies people who may be at risk, including:
- Those working in occupations where there is high exposure to air pollution, such as street cleaners and traffic wardens
- Those who spend a lot of time near busy roadways, like street sellers
- People living in deprived areas. They are often exposed to higher levels of air pollution due to being located near busy roads. They are vulnerable because of their age or pre-existing medical conditions as well as health inequalities
There are a number of things you can do to help reduce your exposure to air pollution.
Use airtext to check for daily air quality and pollution levels in your area. It is a free SMS and online alert system.
Residents can also download the London Air app to view a detailed breakdown of London’s pollution levels and to receive alerts.
Check for risk
You can use Defra’s UK Air resource to help you determine whether you, or your children, are likely to be at risk from air pollution.
Consider staying indoors if risk is high
You may wish to stay indoors when pollution levels are high. Pollution concentrations tend to be lower indoors compared to outdoors, reducing exposure to air pollutants in the environment. Make sure you close your windows during the peak hours as this will reduce levels of pollution coming into the home.
Limit outdoor time when levels are high
During periods of high air pollution try to avoid vigorous, extended outdoor activities such as jogging, gardening, or external DIY. Limiting exertions can help reduce the amount (or dose) of air pollutants inhaled and consequent negative impacts on your health. If you suffer from asthma or COPD always carry a reliever inhaler with you. Follow your doctor's usual advice about exercising and managing your condition. It is possible that very sensitive individuals may experience health effects even on low air pollution days.
On days when pollution levels are low, you should not be worried about going outside if you are healthy. But even on these days, it is a good idea to avoid spending long periods of time in places where pollution levels build up, such as near busy roads. However, it is important to remember that exercise is important for good health, and everyone should be encouraged to walk and exercise regularly.
If you have any concerns about your health, please see your GP. They are best placed to assess your health needs and refer you to the right specialist care if necessary.
Air quality is part of what is known as the ‘wider determinants of health’ which are a diverse range of social, economic and environmental factors that impact on people's health. As part of our Joint Strategic Needs Assessment 2021, which considers the health, care and wellbeing needs of the community, there is a specific chapter on healthy places and air pollution.
Currently the borough is in exceedance of legal limits in relation to two key pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10) and has been declared an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) requiring improvement.
Our plan to improve
As a result of being declared an AQMA, we have produced a new Air Quality Action Plan to help tackle local sources of emissions and improve air quality.
Environmental Health lead on the development of the plan and its implementation in tackling local sources of emissions as set out under Part IV of the Environment Act 1995.
The Act requires local authorities to review air quality in their area where an AQMA has been declared and develop an air quality action plan that contributes to the achievement of air quality limit values at local level.
The local sources of outdoor air pollution include transport and the combustive fuels used for transport, particularly road vehicles including emissions from aircrafts, industry, and from our homes and businesses. Given the amount of harm from air pollution and our knowledge of its sources, there is a clear need for concerted action to improve public health.
Public Health has a role to protect the health of the population and works jointly with Environmental Health in providing advice and guidance on health impacts and measures to reduce exposure to the public.
Apart from contributing to our Air Quality Action Plan, Public Health also works with Environmental Health and the UK Health Security Agency to manage any air pollution incidents which could have a detrimental impact on the health of our local population.
Public Health has drafted an action plan which outlines specific public health actions that contribute to our Air Quality Action Plan. The three key areas within the action plan are:
- Mapping - location of vulnerable groups and communities in the borough and the distribution of PM2.5 and NO2, the two most harmful pollutants to health
- Engagement - targeted and tailored communication and engagement based on the local health needs and the impact of air pollution on health of the population. Engagement includes lobbying on key air pollution issues that affect local communities, including on behalf of vulnerable and at-risk groups
- Behavioural change - learning and development to support council officers and other frontline staff to facilitate conversations about air pollution and to assist vulnerable at-risk groups in the community
Updated: 15 September 2023