Larissa Lockwood, Head of Health at Global Action Plan, discusses the motivation behind Clean Air Day 2018 and the importance of applying its teachings every day.
Air pollution is a national public health emergency: it ranks alongside cancer, heart disease and obesity in the scale of its health impacts. Air pollution is damaging to the health of all of us but particularly young children and those with heart and lung problems.
Yet air pollution is still considered an ‘environmental’ problem. Yes the causes of air pollution are environmental, but the impacts are all about health and it is the health sector that is mopping up the consequences of this emergency. Emissions from vehicles are often the biggest contributor to air pollution and its poor health outcomes in UK towns and cities. Research from the Clean Air Day campaign found that the total health cost to the UK from cars and vans is £6 billion each year, almost 90% coming from diesel vehicles. The cost of an average petrol/diesel car in inner city areas to the NHS and society is £7,714: In comparison the cost of an electric car is just £827.
We therefore have a huge opportunity to improve health and reduce the pressure on NHS services through changing the way we travel. Swapping 1 in 4 car journeys in urban areas for walking or cycling could save over £1.1 billion in health damage costs per year alone. Switching 1 million cars from diesel to electric would save more than £360 million per year in health costs from local air pollution. This demonstrates the impact that people’s individual choices can have, and is what Clean Air Day 2018 is all about.
Polling conducted before Clean Air Day revealed that although the majority (68%) of people were aware that their day-to-day activities can have a direct impact on air quality in their local environment, comparatively few were doing anything to protect their health from air pollution, such as cycling/walking a route previously driven (21%) or buying milder, fragrance-free or naturally-scented cleaning products for the home (11%).
Clean Air Day 2018 set out to change this by giving people the knowledge and encouragement to do something more to cut pollution and reduce their exposure to it, such as walking/cycling rather than driving – which can reduce exposure to air pollution by at least half – and to walk/cycle on quieter routes, which can have at least half as much pollution as a busy road.
Last week, on 21 June, Clean Air Day 2018 saw at least 1,000 organisations helping to communicate messages about air pollution to the public. Over 500 events took place from Southampton to Inverness including: clean air festivals, road closures, free public transport, lung checks, walking school buses, and much more. And it wasn’t just on the streets and in offices, hospitals and in schools that the message was heard. Clean Air Day had a tremendous presence on social media, trending on Twitter for 8 hours. And the campaign captured the imagination of the press and broadcast media who covered Clean Air Day stories from dawn to dusk with a media reach of over 883 million.
The campaign’s 21 official Health Supporters, including many of the medical colleges, the largest NHS trusts, PHE and the NHS SDU, used Clean Air Day to seize the opportunity to engage with their communities about air pollution and the steps that can be taken to breathe cleaner air. Events across the UK included:
• Christie NHS Foundation Trust, NHS Tayside, North Bristol NHS Trust, Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust - to name but a few – all held events to raise staff awareness of the link between air pollution and health.
• Staff at NHS Grampian had a race across town on an electric bike, NHS shuttle bus, electric car and public transport bus to highlight the ease of crossing Aberdeen by low-emission transport (the bike won).
• NHS St Helens CCG joined St Helens Council handing out information to members of the public.
• The London Borough of Waltham Forest worked with public health colleagues to disseminate air pollution health advice in GP surgeries across the borough and to run no-idling activities.
• The Royal College of Psychiatrists published a blog exploring the links between air pollution and mental health
• The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change conference on Realising the Health Benefits of Cleaner Air helped take forward air pollution plans in Scotland.
The level of engagement and action from the health sector was fantastic. But what is now needed is for the health sector to own the issue of air pollution. We need air pollution to be recognised as a health problem, not just an environmental problem. This needs to translate into building air pollution health advice into patient pathways, the inclusion of air quality in joint strategic needs assessments and health and wellbeing strategies, NHS travel and transport and how buildings and services are managed.
Where Clean Air Day 2018 ends, Sustainable Health and Care Week picks up the baton, but air pollution isn’t something the health sector should talk about just on one day or one week, addressing air pollution needs to be recognised as disease prevention and acted upon as the public health emergency it is.