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Air quality: ‘We can and should go further’ says Chief Medical Officer

Whitty cites indoor air pollution as a growing part of the problem, with effective ventilation needed
12 January 2023 , Steve Smethurst

CMO recommendations include reducing air pollution near schools and healthcare settings, while CIEH calls on the government to act now to protect public health

England’s most senior medical advisor, Sir Chris Whitty, published his annual in-depth analysis of UK air quality in December 2022 which called for greater progress on reducing pollution.

Sir Chris said: “Air pollution affects us all. It is associated with impacts on lung development in children, heart disease, stroke, cancer, exacerbation of asthma and increased mortality, among other health effects. We can and should go further to reduce air pollution – and it is technically possible to do so.

“In particular, we need to concentrate on the places where people live, work and study; the same air pollution concentration in a densely populated area will lead to greater accumulated health effects than in a sparsely populated area as more people will be affected.”

He then highlighted indoor air pollution as ‘an increasing proportion of the problem’ and called for “effective ventilation, while minimising energy use and heat loss” as a priority. He also picked out ammonia emissions from agriculture and wood burners as growing issues.

Sarah Clarke, President of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) responded to the report by saying: “The RCP has been highlighting the harmful impacts of air pollution on health since 2016, when we estimated that around 40,000 deaths [a year] were attributable to outdoor air pollution.

“The CMO’s [Chief Medical Officer] report is an important contribution that makes clear why we must be proactive and ambitious in our efforts to improve both outdoor and indoor air quality for everyone.”

“[The government] is disregarding what top scientists and experts say is achievable and necessary."

The need to be proactive was emphasised by Andrea Lee, Clean Air Campaigns Manager at environmental law charity, ClientEarth. She said: “The recent history of air pollution in the UK isn’t a rosy picture, as levels of fine particulate matter have stagnated over the past decade and illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide rebounded after the Covid lockdowns. The government seems to be asleep at the wheel.”

She added that the government’s recent proposals under the Environment Act to set a target to reduce fine particulate matter by 2040 are “too little too late and would leave another generation of children exposed to dangerously dirty air. They are disregarding what top scientists and experts say is achievable and necessary.”

Ross Matthewman, CIEH Head of Policy and Campaigns said that the government is ‘dragging its heels’. “We must act now to reduce air pollution to protect public health. We can and should go further to reduce air pollution, and these recommendations are designed to do just that.

“We welcome the CMO’s calls for greater research into the effects indoor air pollution has on public health, and hope this report focuses the government’s mind on the need to take this issue seriously.”

Among the CMO’s recommendations to reduce air pollution are accelerating the electrification of light vehicles and public transport, innovation to reduce air pollution from non-exhaust sources such as tyres, reducing ammonia emissions in agriculture by applying slurry directly to soil, as well as reducing air pollution near schools and healthcare settings.


Image credit: Shutterstock

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