“Every breath you take, every step you take, I’ll be watching you…” is a famous lyric from 1980s pop band The Police, whose lead singer was Sting. Whilst this song is about love, this extract from the lyrics summarises the current Government position on air pollution very well: it knows full well the impact air pollution is having on people but is doing very little to tackle the problem; it’s doing little more than watching.
That is why this new report, ‘Every Breath We Take: the lifelong impact of air pollution‘, from the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is a welcome reminder that air pollution is not just killing people or ruining their lives, it is also costing the UK economy around £20 billion a year, or 16% of the current NHS budget. While this Government doesn’t seem to get the environment or indeed health, in the true sense of the word, it does get economics. When the NHS is under immense strain financially and overwhelmed by demand, this report gives a clear signal to Government that it needs to act urgently on air pollution. Doing so could help ease the pressure on the NHS on both these levels as well as improving the economy and people’s quality of life.
The report highlights that around 40,000 deaths a year in the UK are due to outdoor air pollution (which is mostly down to traffic) with more due to indoor pollution. It states that this pollution has been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and changes linked to dementia which affect millions. It also believes that the current pollution limits set by Government and the World Health Organisation are not safe as they leave certain groups vulnerable to harmful impacts.
To reduce air pollution one of the top suggestions in the report is for people to alter the way they travel and to try alternatives to the car, preferably taking the active option of a bus, train, walking or cycling. This though is against a background of big cuts to supported bus services and still pitiful levels of funding for walking and cycling. Only road and rail infrastructure are getting any significant investment at present and then the investment in road building is likely to increase air pollution and undermine active travel.
The report’s authors want people to be better informed of air pollution in their locality and for there to be more effective monitoring, the results of which should be communicated to the public in a clear and meaningful way. In contrast there have been significant budget cuts in monitoring both nationally and locally and a lack of political will to take air pollution seriously.
Another recommendation is that local authorities must have the power to close roads or reduce traffic levels when air pollution levels are high, particularly near schools. This is probably a power that local authorities would be keen to have, but without the investment in adequate monitoring, it would be meaningless and do little to avoid harmful exposure to air pollution.
Whilst the VW scandal has undoubtedly raised awareness of air pollution, the incentive to do something about it seems to be falling away. Much like the banker’s scandal when the bankers were villified for what they had done to the economy, years later hardly anyone has been held to account and the rules are being relaxed again.
It is also somewhat ironic that the current debate around the EU centres on bringing power back to this country, yet on air pollution we have all the powers we need to take effective action. Given that the Government seems content on doing very little to safeguard our health (and our economy) for both current and future generations, maybe we should be “sending out an SOS”.