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Public Health England on air pollution

13th March 2019

Traffic jam, central Harrogate
Traffic jam

Public Health England (PHE) has published a report containing recommended measures to reduce pollution and improve air quality.

Public Health England on air pollution: BBC article

The BBC quotes PHE Medical Director Paul Cosford as follows: 'We should stop idling outside schools and we should make sure that children can walk or cycle to school.'

It is one of a range of measures suggested to prevent the 28-36,000 deaths per year in the UK attributed to long-term exposure to air pollution. Air pollution is 'the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK' according to the BBC report, and causes heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and lung cancer, and exacerbates asthma.

Other recommendations include:

  • redesigning cities so people aren't so close to roads, with wider streets, or hedges used to screen against pollutants
  • investing in clean public transport as well as foot and cycle paths
  • encouraging uptake of low-emission vehicles, and installing electric car charging points
  • discouraging highly polluting vehicles from entering populated areas

Public Health England on air pollution: the report itself

PHE's report, 'Review of interventions to improve outdoor air quality and public health', runs to over 200 pages.

Paul Cosford's foreword says that the report provides evidence-based advice, focused on actions available to local authorities, and national actions. He says that there is '...a simple truth, that the evidence and technology are available to make delivery of cleaner air feasible for all of us. A key challenge to this is the commonly-held view that actions to reduce air pollution run counter to economic growth and development. In my view the evidence presented in this report highlights that this is not the case.'

Cosford adds that air pollution is an '...unacceptable, serious and avoidable source of harm to our health.'

The executive summary says that it is best to tackle pollution at source, rather than trying to reduce concentrations of pollutants after they have been emitted, or rely on individuals to avoid exposure by personal actions or behaviour.

Actions should be focused on children, because exposure to air pollution in early life can have a long-lasting effect on lung function.

The vehicle/fuel interventions recommended are on page 50 of the report. They include providing school buses, promoting walking and cycling, local congestion charging, increasing fuel duty/target at diesels, and improved anti-idling enforcement. The report says that the most cost-effective single intervention is road pricing.

The 'behavioural interventions' section states: 'There is strong evidence for the health benefits of physical activity associated with active travel, such as walking and cycling.' Raising awareness is not enough to effect change: it must be done in conjunction with other interventions.

Besides walking and cycling, no idling campaigns are mentioned as behavioural interventions. Anyone who has walked along any street in the UK will have noticed that sitting in a stationary car with the engine running while glued to a mobile phone, is at epidemic levels. It is perhaps the national pastime.

The 'promising intervention strategies' has a section on transport priorities. It says that the highest public health benefit comes from measures aimed at  '...reducing the most polluting forms of transport, such as low emission zones, road pricing and low emission modes of transport. Investment in infrastructure and public transport is required along with the promotion of active travel and complementary behavioural interventions at the design stage.'

The planning interventions section talks about producing a pattern of land use that reduces the demand for polluting car journeys.

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