Feature Briefing

Air pollution in UK: the public health problem that won’t go away

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h2757 (Published 22 May 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h2757
  1. Nigel Hawkes, freelance journalist, London, UK
  1. nigel.hawkes1{at}btinternet.com

Sixty years after the Clean Air Act, air pollution is back in the headlines. The government has been accused of a failure to act while drivers of diesel cars, who were encouraged to believe they were doing the environment a favour, are now categorised as polluters in chief. Air pollution now kills 29  000 people a year in the UK, according to the headlines. In 2011, the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons said: “The costs to society from poor air quality are on a par with those from smoking and obesity.”1

How has this happened?

Air pollution of all sorts has declined sharply in the past 25 years according to official figures.2 Nitrogen oxide levels have fallen by almost two thirds from their 1990 peak, and particulates have more than halved over the same period. But the decline has slowed, and recent studies of the health effects of these two pollutants have raised the bar. While pollution is actually lower than it used to be, the damage it does is better quantified.

Can it really cost 29 000 lives a year?

The figure comes from a 2014 report by the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants 3 and relates to particulates—small particles less …

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