Air pollution could kill 160,000 people in the next decade through strokes and heart attacks

air pollution

Air pollution is a big killer. Air pollution has also been linked to an increased risk in depression and suicide.

More than 160,000 people could die in the next decade from strokes and heart attacks caused by air pollution, a charity has warned.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) said there is an estimated 11,000 such deaths per year at the moment, but this figure will rise as the population continues to age.

It would mean the equivalent of more than 40 heart and circulatory disease deaths related to air pollution every day.

It follows a UK government report published in November 2019 that estimated air pollution is killing thousands of people in the UK every year.

The charity has called on the UK to adopt World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on air pollution and meet them by 2030.

Current EU limits, which the UK comfortably meets, for “fine particulate matter” (PM2.5) air pollution are 25 micrograms per meter cubed as an annual average. The WHO limits are tougher – at 10 micrograms per meter cubed as an annual average.

The BHF said PM2.5 can have a “seriously detrimental effect to heart health”, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke and making existing health problems worse.

Jacob West, executive director of healthcare innovation at the BHF, said: “Every day, millions of us across the country are inhaling toxic particles which enter our blood and get stuck in our organs, raising our risk of heart attacks and stroke.

“Make no mistake – our toxic air is a public health emergency, and we haven’t done enough to tackle this threat to our society.

“We need to ensure that stricter, health-based air quality guidelines are adopted into law to protect the health of the nation as a matter of urgency.

“Clean air legislation in the 1950s and 1960s, and more recently the smoking ban in public places, show that government action can improve the air we breathe.

“Decision-makers across the country owe it to future generations to help stop this alarming figure from becoming a reality.

“That’s why we are urging people to contact their MP and demand a change in the law.”

Smog over Canary Wharf, as seen from Greenwich Park in London. (PA)

In July 2019, the UK Department for Environment and Rural Affairs published a study showing that meeting WHO guidelines on air pollution is “technically feasible” in most areas of the UK by 2030.

The BHF has launched a new campaign, You’re Full Of It, to highlight how people are inhaling dangerous levels of PM2.5 in towns and cities across the UK every day.

UK’s National Health Service (NHS) medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “The climate emergency is also a health emergency, with thousands of avoidable deaths and hospital admissions every year linked to air pollution, which is why the NHS is playing its part by taking action to reduce carbon emissions, including by cutting traffic by reducing the need for millions of hospital appointments through better services.

“With air pollution contributing to around 40,000 deaths a year and four in 10 children at school in high-pollution communities, it’s clear that tackling air pollution needs to be everyone’s urgent business.”

Air pollution kills more than 20,500 people every year in the UK

In November 2019, media reports said:

Air pollution kills more than 20,500 people every year in the UK, research suggests.

Scientists behind a new Lancet report reveal microscopic particles released in vehicle emissions cause tens of thousands of Britons to die too soon.

Known as particulate matter (PM), the substances “float” unseen in the atmosphere.

Particles smaller than 2.5μm (PM2.5) – 400th of a millimeter – are thought to be particularly damaging due to them getting “lodged” in the lungs.

Inhaling the microscopic particles has been linked to everything from allergies and “lung dysfunction” to heart disease and even death, according to the UK government report (Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) in the United Kingdom, by the Air Quality Expert Group).

PM2.5 comes about from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels for “electricity, transport and household heating”, the scientists wrote in the 2019 Lancet Countdown on health and climate change report.

Between 2016 and 2018, carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels rose by 2.6%.

On a global scale, exposure to PM2.5 is “the largest environmental risk factor for premature mortality”.

Inhaling these microscopic substances is said to have caused 2.9 million people worldwide to die too soon from cardiovascular or respiratory diseases in 2016 alone.

Of these, more than 440,000 deaths are thought to have been down to coal.

And children may be particularly vulnerable.

More than 90% of youngsters are said to be exposed to PM2.5 levels above the World Health Organization’s safe limit.

This has been linked to lung damage, reduced organ growth and pneumonia.

In later life, exposed youngsters may be more at risk of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“Children are nearer to a vehicle’s exhaust,” report author Dr Nicholas Watts, from University College London, said.

“Their lungs are developing.

“Air pollution affects surfactants in the alveoli, which could reduce their breathing capacity by 10-to-12%.”

Alveoli are tiny sacs in the lungs where gas exchange takes place.

“The damage done in childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime,” Dr Watts added.

In terms of heart health, air pollution like PM2.5 can cause the blood vessel walls to narrow and harden, according to the BHF.

It may also restrict blood vessel movement, leading to hypertension.

And evidence suggests inhaling PM2.5 could make blood more likely to clot and disrupt the heart’s electrical rhythm.

“We treat patients who have strokes, heart attacks and life-threatening asthma caused by the toxic air we breathe”, Dr Sandy Robertson, from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said.

But it may not all be bad news.

Renewable energy made up 45% of the total growth in power generation last year.

Low-carbon electricity also accounted for a third of the total electricity generated worldwide in 2016.

And electricity as fuel for road transport grew by almost a third between 2015 and 2016 in the UK.

If the world meets the Paris Agreement targets, a child born in the UK today could see coal replaced with solar and wind energy by their sixth birthday.

And by their 31st birthday, they could be living in a net-zero emission world.

How to protect yourself against air pollution

Chris Large, senior partner at the Global Action Plan recommends people protect themselves by checking the daily air pollution forecast in their area.

In the UK, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) allows people to look up the level of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and PM in their region.

DEFRA color codes pollutant levels according to a low or high risk.

“On days when it’s higher than average, pregnant women and those with heart or lung conditions are advised to reduce their outdoor exercise,” Large told earlier.

“It’s quite rare it’s that bad; maybe five-to-10 days a year.”

Day-to-day, people can reduce their exposure by avoiding busy roads where possible.

“Taking the back street can reduce the pollution someone is exposed to by 50%,” Large said.

Perhaps surprisingly, opting to walk rather than drive can also lower the amount of emissions a person inhales.

“Air pollution in a car is often much higher than walking or cycling; sometimes it’s 10 times higher,” Large said.

“You think if you’re inside you’re protected but the pollution comes in from the vehicle in front’s exhaust pipe and it builds up because there is no open air.”

In our homes, Large recommends we keep the air circulating as much as possible.

“Use the extractor fan, even if cooking from a gas or electric hob,” he said.

“Pollutants come off the hob surface.”

While we may not want to hear it, everyday items like candles, air fresheners and hairspray also pollute our homes.

“I don’t want to say ‘never use a candle ever again’, but it is a source of indoor air pollution,” Large said.

“Use them sparingly and cautiously.”

To prevent poor air building up, he also recommends we keep windows open during quieter times of the day.

“If you are next to a busy road, it’s probably best not to open the window during rush hour,” Large said.

“Wait until the traffic has died down and use windows that face away from busy roads.”

Changing our diet may also enable us to better fight off air pollution exposure.

“Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, which protect against air pollution,” Dr Heather Walton, from King’s College London, previously told.

“It’s not formally proven but it’s a good idea.

“You’re also probably more susceptible if you already have a health problem, so avoid fat in your diet to protect against heart disease.”

UK’s most polluted cities and towns

A May 2018 report revealed the most polluted cities and towns in the UK.

More than 40 towns and cities in the UK are at or have exceeded air pollution limits set by the WHO, its new report has found.

The WHO estimates that 30 areas have fine-particle air pollution levels above 10 micrograms per cubic meter, with another 17 at that limit.

Areas that exceeded the level included London, Manchester and Swansea.

Dirty air can cause debilitating diseases and hasten death.

The figures on air pollution are contained in the WHO’s report (WHO Global Ambient Air Quality Database, update 2018), which estimates that globally nine out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants.

Most of the UK figures were collected between 2013 and 2015 and in some places estimates of fine-particle air pollution were made based on measurements of larger particles of pollution.

In the UK, Scunthorpe had the highest estimated level of fine-particle air pollution at 15 micrograms per cubic meter, though this was from 2013.

Fine-particle air pollution is particularly bad for us, penetrating deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory infections, the WHO says.

It estimates that, globally, seven million people die each year from exposure to such pollution, with most of these deaths being in low and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa.

The world’s most polluted city in 2015, according to the WHO, was Muzaffarpur in India, with a figure of 197 micrograms per cubic meter – although that figure is under revision. Pasakha in Bhutan, Delhi in India and greater Cairo, Egypt, also had very high levels.

However, while many UK towns had air pollution recorded at or above the WHO’s recommended limit, in a number of places the levels are falling.

In London, for example, levels fell from 17 to 11 micrograms from 2013 to 2015, while in the same period there was a fall from 17 micrograms to 12 in Sheffield.

Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said the UK still had “a long way to go in the fight against air pollution”.

“The UK government needs to show leadership by adopting WHO air quality guidelines into national legislation and in doing so, help to protect the nation’s heart and circulatory health.”

A spokesperson for the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “While air quality in the UK has improved significantly since 2010, this report from the WHO clearly shows the impact air pollution is having on the health of men, women and children in the UK and across the world.

“Tackling this important issue is a priority for this government which is why we have a £3.5bn plan to improve air quality and reduce harmful emissions and will set out further actions through a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy later this year.”

The 30 UK places (and Gibraltar) that exceeded the limit of 10 micrograms per cubic meter:

Scunthorpe: 15 (estimate)

Gibraltar: 14

Manchester: 13

Swansea: 13

Gillingham: 13 (estimate)

Carlisle: 12 (estimate)

Chepstow: 12 (estimate)

Leeds: 12

Leicester: 12

Liverpool: 12

Grays: 12 (estimate)

Eccles: 12 (estimate)

Nottingham: 12 (estimate)

Plymouth: 12 (estimate)

York: 12

Prestonpans: 12

Royal Leamington Spa: 12

Sandy: 12

Sheffield: 12 (estimate)

Stoke-On-Trent: 12

London: 11

Coventry: 11

Hull: 11 (estimate)

Londonderry: 11 (estimate)

Middlesbrough: 11

Norwich: 11 (estimate)

Southend-On-Sea: 11

Stockton-On-Tees: 11

Storrington: 11

Wigan: 11

The 17 areas that are at the limit:

Armagh: 10 (estimate)

Birmingham: 10

Brighton: 10

Bristol: 10

Cardiff: 10

Eastbourne: 10

Harlington: 10

Newcastle: 10 (estimate)

Newport: 10

Oxford: 10

Portsmouth: 10

Preston: 10

Salford: 10 (estimate)

Saltash: 10

Southampton: 10

Stanford-Le-Hope: 10

Port Talbot: 10




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