Air pollution and health
20 September 2022
By Hayley Carmichael
A staggering 40,000 deaths per year in the UK are attributable to air pollution, costing the NHS billions of pounds each year. It’s time for the NHS to lead the way so that we can all breathe cleaner, healthier air.
Every breath we take
The Royal College of Physicians in partnership with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health produced a report ‘Every breath we take: the lifelong implications of air pollution’. Their findings are an important reminder that the environment we live in is inescapably linked to our health – and that we have a moral responsibility to improve and protect our environment for the benefit of our health.
Gary Fuller, senior lecturer in air quality measurement Kings College London and working party member, talks about the report.
Air pollution has been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and changes linked to dementia. It is responsible for 40,000 deaths each year in the UK alone (and over 3 million globally), and costs the NHS in excess of £20 billion.
Tackling the root causes of air pollution will literally be life-saving – and will hugely reduce the financial burden on the NHS.
The NHS has a significant role to play in this, not least because of it’s own impact on air quality. According the the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, travel related to the NHS accounts for 5% of all road traffic in England, which is responsible for 13% of the carbon footprint of the NHS.
The report highlights a key message: “Lead by example within the NHS. The health service must no longer be a major polluter; it must lead by example and set the benchmark for clean air and safe workplaces.”
We often think of air pollution as being something that happens ‘outside’. We point the finger at cars, power plants, factories, and rightly so as these do contribute.
But the report recognises that indoor air pollution can be equally harmful – think coal/wood fires, boilers and cleaning products. It calls on people to take ownership of this and be more responsible for the environment within their own four walls.
Leading by example
It’s clearly time for the NHS to lead the way in creating a cleaner, greener world – so that we, our families and our patients can all breathe more easily. This is why the Greener NHS programme was introduced with all Trusts committed to reducing their carbon footprint and impact on the environment.
Through our Care Without Carbon programme we are reducing the impact of delivering healthcare on the environment while at the same time maximising the health benefits to our staff and patients.
At Sussex Community the Travel Transformation Programme reduced grey fleet mileage by almost 1 million miles in one year. The reduction in emissions associated with this equates to 62 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which has provided considerable support to local authorities’ local air quality improvement targets.
The introduction of virtual appointments has also helped reduce the need for travel, and SASH, Sussex Partnership and Sussex Community have seen thousands of appointments move to digital over the past six months.
The work on travel is supported through our engagement programme, which encourages staff to find an alternative to the car – cycling, walking or taking the bus – and for essential journeys to try out ‘eco-driving’ techniques to help drive more efficiently and save on fuel at the same time. We’ve had a great response, with staff keen to get on board.
Read about how Marie Newton is achieving this by switching the car for an electric bike for her home patient visits.
So far so good, but we still have a long way to go and we’re excited about our plans for the future.
More and more NHS providers are recognising the importance of working towards a more sustainable healthcare system. Our ambition is to realize the benefits of collective impact – which in an organisation the size of the NHS could be huge. That’s why we are promoting Travel Smarter September this year, to promote more active travel choices that will contribute to improving our local air quality.
Six steps to breathing easier
Individually, there are things we can do now to help tackle air pollution, both at home and outside. The Royal College of Physicians has created ‘6 steps to breathing better air’:
B e aware of the air quality where you live
R eplace old gas appliances in your home
E nsure you have an energy efficient home
A lter how you travel. Take the active travel option: bus, train, walking and cycling
T alk to your MP
H arness technology to stay informed and monitor air pollution effectively
Taking a dare could be a great way to show your support, and start to create the change we need to see in order to tackle this problem. ‘One less car journey’ is the ideal place to start or ‘active commute‘.
The report also emphasises how the public can do their part to reduce pollutant exposure. Noting the impact collective action can have on the future levels of air pollution in our communities.
The Dare to Care campaign is specifically designed to harness the power of collective action; together we can help to create a healthier world.
You can also read more on the report’s findings in this Lancet paper. It suggests that while the report makes a good case for change, it does not go far enough and we should be looking to enforce regulations on air pollution levels.
What are your thoughts? Comments always welcome…