‘Let’s level up air quality’, conference told

Air quality advocates should embrace the government’s levelling up agenda to clean up the UK’s air, according to asthma expert professor Sir Stephen Holgate, who spoke at the annual conference of Environmental Protection UK (EPUK) yesterday.

“As we go into 2022, let’s use this levelling up agenda,” to clean up the air, the former chair of DEFRA’s Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee suggested, not least by making breathing clean air a human right, he suggested.

There is a “moral case” for action, he added: “Just think of the lives and morbidity that will be saved”, with thousands of strokes, and asthma cases lung cancers and lung cancers avoided. “2022 needs to be the turning point for change,” he said.

The most affected are racial minorities and the poor, “those who can least protect themselves… there’s a social injustice here that needs to be thought about”. Around two in five babies are born in areas with air pollution worse than the 2005 guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO), the highest proportion being in deprived communities.

Bolder air quality laws, which could arise from regulations made under the new Environment Act, renewed priority given to air pollution as the country steadily decarbonises and ramped up funding for public transport, walking and cycling are needed, he told the conference, held at Birmingham’s Aston University.

Reflecting on the burdens of dirty air, which contributes to ill health and death as much as passive smoking, he said it was “extraordinary” that the WHO held its first global conference on air pollution and human health only three years ago. Massive epidemiological studies have demonstrated that “there is no safe level of air pollution”, he added, demonstrating that the belief that the subject is somehow sorted in the UK is quite wrong.

It’s “not just a lung and heart problem”, said Holgate, adding that exposure to air pollution affects the entire body, from the metabolism of sugar, the growth of organs in babies to cognition. “Therefore, we have to think this is something of interest to the health professions more broadly,” he told the conference.

But the message has not got through, either to the public or professionals, he said: “Unless we get the medical and health community engaged… I don’t think we are going to move the dial very much.”

That being so, “We need a public health campaign on air pollution… I would like to see EPUKgive that very serious consideration,” he added.

Ensuring that the medical community is properly educated on the impacts of air pollution was one of the key recommendations of a coroner’s ‘prevention of future deaths’ report following the provision of a revised death certificate for Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah.

As an adviser to her family, Holgate was one of the driving forces behind obtaining the coroner’s report, and continues to work with the royal colleges of medicine to implement its conclusions.

The ruling was the first time that an individual death was attributed to air pollution. 

Asked by ENDS what the practical impacts of it were, Holgate said it was “a little early to say”. But he plans to bring together all of the organisations to which the report was addressed next year and ask them what they are doing in response.

There is now “a different conversation” within government about the subject, he said. This can be seen in how DEFRA is working on revising its air quality index, with a “much wider community of people involved”, he added.

Holgate said he was “not so pessimistic” about the outcome. “Let’s just use 2022 to see if we can pull a few more levers,” headded. In the meantime, Ella’s mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah was “holding the feet of the government to the fire to ask what is happening”, he said.

Other highlights from the conference

  • Delivering a presentation on public health lessons from the pandemic, University of Leicester environmental epidemiologist professor Anna Hansell noted that exposure to air pollution increases the risk of chronic disease, making the likelihood of being infected by Covid-19 worse. But she also observed that the reverse relationship may be true: “People who have recovered from Covid may be more susceptible to environmental stresses”.

  • Consultant Sarah Legge, chair of EPUK’s air quality committee, announced that the guidance on air quality and climate change that the organisation issued in 2013 was being revised, to address a much broader range of measures”. The review will address the unintended consequences of climate policies, such as the promotion of diesel over petrol, urban biomass combined heat and power plants and diesel-fuelled backup generators, she said.By linking the two subjects together, “you make these things far more acceptable and easy to do”, she said.

  • Jamie Parnell, an engineer at air quality monitoring firm Cambustion, introduced a portable device capable of sensing nitrogen oxides to an accuracy of five parts per billion within milliseconds, which he said was the first of its kind. It is able to attribute spikes in pollution to individual vehicles, which would be useful for identifying particularly gross emitters and cheat devices, he said.

  • Air Quality Hub, an online resource for local authorities has been launched, providing information on accelerating the adoption of low emission fuels and technology and how to use emissions assessment to support policy and action.

  • “The exam question for today is how has the pandemic changed our behaviour and attitudes to the environment and has air quality improved?” said Tim Williamson, of Air Quality Consultants. “The short answer is no,” or it is too early to say at least, he answered. While air pollution dropped dramatically in cities during lockdown, traffic levels have since returned close to what they were before. But levels of nitrogen oxides are slightly lower than they were, suggesting “some kind of additional benefit” from the pandemic, which may include more flexible working.

  • DEFRA officials revealed that a new, broader and more accurate modelling system will be used in the next round of noise mapping, and that they had some concerns about the wider deployment of potentially loud heat pumps. They also said that an interdepartmental group has been working on reviewing the links between noise and negative health outcomes, which could lead to updates to valuing noise impacts through the Treasury’s Green Book on policy assessment.

  • The Environment Agency will soon publish an evidence paper on the prevalence of ‘foever chemicals’ PFAS in closed landfills. A new regulatory approach is also needed for coastal landfills threatened by erosion, as it was not viable to simply excavate and remove them, according to EPUK’s chair of trustees, Christopher Fry.