Tackling the hazards to health posed by air pollution

Exercise & travel Public Health

(arising from member policy day held on 18/6/16 in Birmingham)

AUTHORS: Val Little and Jacky Chambers

Improving the health of our people and the health of the poorest fastest is a cornerstone of the socialist programme. Improving health requires policy intervention across a range of traditionally silo policy areas – it is a cross-cutting theme.

Example: Tackling the hazard to health posed by air pollution

Outdoor air pollution is a major hazard to health (causes an estimated 40,000 deaths a year, increased lung and heart disease, risks to the baby in the womb and lifelong damage to the lung function of exposed1i).


In England, exposure to air pollution is mainly an urban problem and strongly associated with areas of deprivation. Estimatesii iii suggest that around 11% of neighbourhoods (circa 5.7 million people are exposed to NO2 levels of pollution higher than that recommended by the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive.

20 per cent of deprived neighbourhoods had higher air pollution levels than the least deprived neighbourhoods – 1.5 µg/m3 higher PM10 and 4.4 µg/m3 NO2 after adjusting for other factors.

The worst air pollution is experienced in ethnic minority (> 20% non white neighbourhoods).

Biggest differences in exposure to air pollution between communities are seen in London.


These pollution inequalities contribute to worse health in those communities – for example, children living in highly polluted areas are 4 times more likely to have reduced lung function when adults.


Road transportation is now the largest single pollutant source (one third of UK emissions of oxides of nitrogen, mostly from diesel; verging on one fifth of UK emissions of particulate matter, again mostly from diesel; one third of UK total of carcinogenic benzene emissions- petrol combustion)iv.

Reducing the harm caused by air pollution from road transportation requires action across a range of policy areas by:

  1. Safety regulation – making vehicles cleaner and less polluting
  2. Reducing the volume of road traffic and exposure of local communities to pollution from road traffic

1 Safety regulation – making vehicles cleaner and less polluting

  • support tighter EU standards to reduce vehicle emissions (contributing to accelerated achievement of Gothenburg protocolv standards)
  • ensure independent verification of vehicle testing – no more VWs
  • develop an industrial strategy which promotes switch to electric vehicles , incentivises research, development and production based on renewable energy sources , puts UK in lead and creates new jobs.
  • introduce road tax regimes which further encourage companies and people to buy and run less polluting vehicles.
  • give metropolitan councils more powers to create and enforce low emission zonesvi

2 Reduce volume of road traffic

1 Amend land use planning framework and regulations to

  • promote mixed development aimed at reduced car journeys to shops and work;
  • define proximity limits for major roads to new residential developments schools and nurseries and give guidance to Highways Authorities and Planning Inspectors to reject new developments in air pollution hot spots
  • require walking and cycling infrastructure as part of planning approval process

2. Create a modal shift (at least 5%) towards greener forms of transport

  • develop an air quality control plan which is underpinned by public spending /spending review on programmes and local transport plans which change ratio of investment in cycling and walking infrastructure from eg 11% : from 4% to 25% of total transport budget by 2020/21
  • subsidise public transport so that it is cheaper than costs of driving by car (eg between 1997-2015 motoring costs decreased by 10% while rail fares increased by 23% and bus fares increased by 25%)vii
  • reinvigorate use of rail for freight as part of a publicly owned rail system.
  • reverse impact of LA cuts in bus services (eg since 2010 80% of local authorities have reduced school buses)

Measures to reduce environmental air pollution inequality and the health impact of this pollution should focus on cutting vehicle emissions in deprived urban neighbourhoods.


i Royal College of Physicians Every breath we take: The Lifelong impact of Air Pollution Report of a Working Party February 2016 https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution

ii Fecht, D. et al. ‘Associations between air pollution and socioeconomic characteristics, ethnicity and age profile of neighbourhoods in England and the Netherland’,Environmental Pollution (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2014.12.014

iii  Davis A. Submission to the Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health. Input paper: Transport and pollution. 1998

iv National Air Emissions Inventory http://naei.defra.gov.uk/overview/ap-overview

vi Campaign for Better Transport letter to Rory Stewart MP 18th August 2015. http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdfs/Air-pollution-Rory-Stewart-letter.pdf