Researchers say pollution affects our quality of life and impacts our ability to work, learn and contribute to society.
From before birth to old age, air pollution damages our health at all stages of life according to new research from Imperial College London (ICL).
ICL’s Environmental Research Group found that particle pollution (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide - both of which come from vehicle exhausts - were particularly harmful.
As there is no evidence to suggest at what threshold PM2.5 becomes harmful, they say that even those living in the least polluted suburbs of London could be affected.
“While headline figures on the health impact of air pollution focus on the equivalent number of premature deaths, the wider impacts are hiding in plain sight in the contribution of air pollution to the burden of chronic diseases,” the study’s authors write.
This affects our quality of life and can have large costs for society because of additional health and social care needs, they add. It also impacts our ability to learn, work and contribute to society.
How does air pollution affect our health?
The research looked at key evidence from 35,000 studies in the last 10 years from institutions like the World Health Organization, the Royal College of Physicians and the International Agency for Research on Cancer to discover the full picture from pre-birth to end of life.
Air pollution was shown to cause low sperm count. During pregnancy, it was found to harm foetal development. It can also cause low birth weight and miscarriages.
In childhood, air pollution can cause asthma and stunt lung growth. It could also affect mental health, blood pressure and cognitive abilities.
And in adulthood, it makes early death from cancer, strokes and chronic illness more likely.
The most important new finding, the report’s authors say, is evidence related both to the impact of air pollution on brain health - including mental health and dementia - as well as health impacts in early life.
“Both represent significant, but currently unquantified costs to society and the economy,” they write.
What impact is air pollution having in the UK?
The report was commissioned by the Greater London Authority and comes as the UK government launches a consultation on its Air Quality Strategy.
In 2018, Public Health England estimated that in the UK up to 43,000 people a year die due to air pollution. It said that it could cost the country as much as €21 billion by 2035 if action isn’t taken.
Nine year old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah was the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. She died in 2013 after having an asthma attack due to fumes from traffic.
In 2020, an inquest into her death found that she had been exposed to excessive levels of pollution before her death.
“Policies should be aimed at reducing the accumulating harm from air pollution and the health degradation, in addition to protecting people who have become vulnerable to current pollution concentrations,” the report’s authors suggest.