The government’s chief medical officer told government and health leaders that air pollution could most effectively be tackled in workplaces as well as other frequently used public spaces.
Sir Chris Whitty told delegates at a Clean Air and Health Summit held by Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, in central London on Thursday (17 February) that air pollution “is a solvable problem” and “the real place we need to tackle air pollution is where people live, work, study, play”.
Whitty said: “Many of the things that drive pollution where people live and work and study are entirely amenable to us engineering out of the problem, for example, on transport, or regulating out the problem as we’ve very successfully achieved over many decades,” he said, pointing to the Clean Air Act in 1956 to cut pollution.
He said there were a variety of things that could be done to encourage the engineering and building professions and road planners to design society to reduce air pollution, and once that happened, things would not go backwards.
Whitty added: “However, that doesn’t deal with the here and now, and many of these problems are going to take some years to work through.
“This is where the medical profession does come in. Along with others, I agree with the principle – as do leaders of the medical profession – that we have concentrated too little on air pollution for quite a while now.”
The summit focused on “improved ways of ensuring the public is aware of the health impacts of air pollution, including through the provision of more targeted ‘air quality alerts’ on the most polluted days”. The scale of the challenge requires collaboration across national, regional and local government, the NHS and wider health system, as well as with non-governmental groups such as academia, campaigners and international bodies.
City Hall has also published updated air quality guides for public health professionals to be shared with local officials in every London borough. These will contain borough-specific information on air pollution levels, including around priority sites such as schools, hospitals and care homes, as well as data on the health impacts of air pollution both generally and in each borough.
These resources will help boroughs to target action to improve the health and wellbeing of the local community and reduce the health inequalities caused by exposure to air pollution.
Dr Vin Diwakar, regional medical director and chief clinical information officer at NHS England, told attendees: “Poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in London and in the UK as a whole. Long-term exposure to air pollution can cause chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as lung cancer, leading to reduced life expectancy. In particular, the most vulnerable face all these disadvantages; the poorest Londoners often have the highest levels of exposure, while wealthier households on average contribute more to producing it.
“Tackling this crucial issue is essential to making London a healthier place to live for everyone – and it can only be done by institutions like the NHS and City Hall working together and changing how we all live and work. The NHS has pledged to become Net Zero by 2045 and some of the measures we will be putting in place to address our contribution to the problem include reducing waste gases and preventing the atmospheric release of medical gases by all trusts; making sure that NHS trusts only buy renewable energy and building a zero or ultra-low emission vehicle fleet across the service.”
Indoor air quality has become a more prominent issue since the start of the pandemic.
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