New findings show why tackling air pollution must be top priority

27 May 2018        

Category: Survival and support

Following this week’s commitment from government to bring forward new legislation to help clean up the UK’s toxic air, we urge the Government to introduce a new Clean Air Act that adopts World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines, as a survey commissioned by the charity shows two thirds (65%) of respondents are concerned about the effect of air pollution on their health. 

a picture showing the view down the river thames with a haze

Our survey shows that almost a quarter of its supporters (24%) believe outdoor air pollution has affected their health in the last few years and three in five (60%) respondents living with a heart and circulatory condition said they have had to change their way of life to avoid outdoor air pollution.

Twenty-five years on since the Clean Air Act was last amended, air pollution is now the largest environmental risk factor linked to deaths in England. Globally, coronary heart disease and stroke account for approximately six in ten (58%) deaths related to outdoor air pollution. 

25 years later

However, legislation no longer reflects this evidence, which shows that the particulate matter (PM) found in air pollution is the major cause of these cardiovascular deaths. WHO estimates that in 2016, outdoor air pollution was responsible for 17% of all adult deaths from ischaemic heart disease and 14% from stroke. The WHO has stringent air quality guidelines for PM, which the Government have recognised but not adopted into current legislation.

This week the Government launched its draft Clean Air Strategy which is a welcome and reassuring step but does not go far enough to effectively protect people from the ill effects of toxic air.

The strategy commits to halving the number of UK population living in areas where PM levels exceed these limits by 2025, but ultimately we would like to see this action go further to reduce the health impacts of our toxic air as quickly as possible.  Lives are being impacted now, and all Government departments and relevant health and third sector bodies need to be uniting around the prospect of bold legislation.

Act now

Simon Gillespie, Our Chief Executive, said:

“Dangerous levels of air pollution in the UK are damaging the health of the public in the UK - both healthy individuals and particularly those with heart and circulatory disease. 

"Recognising World Health Organisation air quality guidelines in the draft strategy is a positive step but we’d like to see the government go further by adopting the WHO air quality guidelines into national legislation. These more stringent limits would better protect the nation’s heart and circulatory health. 

“Air pollution is silently harming people every day. There is no time to lose. The need for tighter limits could not be more pressing to prevent the detrimental impact on the public’s health in the years to come. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, we urge Government to act now to ensure that we see real progress in the next 25 years.”

Air pollution affects everyone

Mya Steer, 19, lives just outside Bristol. She was diagnosed with an inherited heart condition, arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC), just after her 18th birthday in early 2017 and says air pollution makes it hard for her to breath. Mya said: 

“I think air pollution affects everyone’s heart health in a negative way, but it is especially damaging when you already have a heart condition. Air pollution is known to cause heart issues when people are exposed to it for prolonged periods of time, so I am lucky I don’t work in the centre of Bristol. 

“When I go to places which are more polluted I find that it’s harder to breathe as it feels like there is no ‘fresh’ air - it is just polluted air coming from the build-up of traffic and machinery in the area. It is already hard to catch my breath sometimes so when the air is polluted it just makes it harder to do things.”

Our research

We released these figures ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Clean Air Act 1993 to highlight the pressing need for new UK-wide legislation to adopt WHO guidelines for particulate matter (PM). PM is a mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that get into the air. Once inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lungs and cause lasting damage. 

Our research has shown the devastating impact air pollution, particularly from small particles in diesel fumes has on those living with heart and circulatory conditions. It first identified that even short-term inhalation of elevated concentrations of PM is harmful to health for those living with heart failure, increasing their risk of a heart attack within just 24 hours of exposure. Further BHF-funded research has found that particles in diesel exhausts exacerbate atherosclerosis – the furring of the arteries - which can go on to cause heart attack and stroke.

The UK is currently breaching EU standards for nitrogen dioxide and, whilst it is meeting EU standards for particulate matter, these are significantly less stringent than the targets recommended by the WHO to prevent harm to health. 

Top priority

Air Pollution is and will remain a top priority for us. Our research into air pollution has led to important insights into how damaging air pollution exposure is and why it must be tackled urgently.

With 52% of the BHF’s survey respondents feeling that the government should be doing a lot more to improve air quality across the UK, We are urging government to take bold action now and introduce a new Clean Air Act that adopts WHO air quality guidelines.

Learn more about our research and work on air pollution