BHF Policy - protecting the nation’s health from air pollution

Cars air pollution

In the UK, air pollution is responsible for around 11,000 deaths due to heart and circulatory diseases each year. Since the early 2000s, the BHF has invested over £5 million in a major portfolio of research to help understand the impact of air pollution on our heart and circulatory system.

Why is air pollution an issue?

According to the Global Burden of Disease study (GBD), around half of global deaths related to outdoor air pollution are caused by a heart attack or stroke.

Our research has shown that high levels of air pollution can have a detrimental effect on heart health, making existing heart conditions worse and even leading to the development of new health problems. We know that people with existing health problems such as coronary heart disease may be more at risk from a heart attack or stroke due to air pollution, but exposure to these harmful pollutants affects everyone’s health, and is an urgent issue.

Two of the most common and harmful types of air pollutants for health are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM). BHF research has identified that there is a particularly strong link between poor heart and circulatory health and particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers (that’s a thirtieth of the width of a strand of hair). This is known as PM2.5 and comes from sources including diesel vehicle emissions and wood burning.

Is there a safe level of exposure to PM2.5?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that there is no safe level of exposure to PM2.5. However, they do recommend guideline targets that limit the harm to human health.

The UK’s current legal limit for PM2.5 is not as strict as the level recommended by the WHO. With the exception of Scotland, the UK limit for PM2.5 is 25 micrograms per cubic metre, over double the WHO recommended level of 10 micrograms. This means that many vulnerable people, including those with existing heart and circulatory diseases, are potentially exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.

 Action the BHF supports to address the health risks from air pollution

The BHF believes that adopting the WHO air quality guidelines into UK law is a crucial step in protecting the nation’s heart health. Having these targets in law will ensure that action to reduce air pollution will be effective in reducing the risk to the nation’s heart and circulatory health.

The BHF has highlighted our research findings on air pollution to Government. We were pleased to see that the Clean Air Strategy, published in 2019, recognised the huge health burden of air pollution and pledged to reduce people’s exposure to the most harmful pollutants. However, we believe that there is more that can be done to tackle this urgent problem. We’re calling for the WHO guideline limits for PM2.5 to be adopted into UK law by 2030, as part of the Government’s proposed Environment Bill which was announced in July 2018. We will continue to push for this new legislation to be introduced as soon as possible.

If you would like further information, please email us at [email protected]