WHO guidelines on air pollution ‘feasible’, but more details needed

24 July 2019        

Category: BHF Comment

Achieving the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline limits on air pollution is “technically feasible”, according to new evidence published by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

The evidence, released yesterday, analysed the action that needs to be taken in order to meet the WHO guidelines on fine particulate matter (PM2.5) across the UK, and was promised in the Government’s Clean Air Strategy (CAS), which was published in January.

The analysis was carried out by teams at Imperial College London and King’s College London, who modelled the extent to which the actions set out in the CAS would aid us in meeting the recommended WHO guideline level, and to help us to begin to understand what additional action would be needed in order to achieve it.

BHF-funded research has shown that PM2.5 has a number of damaging effects on the heart and circulatory system, even in healthy people, and can increase the risk of having a heart attack or stroke for those who have an existing heart or circulatory condition. The UK’s current legal limit is more than double that recommended by the WHO.

While the actions set out in the CAS will result in substantial progress towards achieving the WHO guideline level for PM2.5 across the country, there will be localised areas, in particular in central London, where higher levels are likely to continue.

According to the study, delivering existing commitments to reduce emissions of air pollutants by 2030 will result in an estimated benefit of £6.8 billion per year (not including NHS and social care costs), a reduction in the number of people living in locations exceeding WHO guideline levels of PM2.5 of over 80% compared to 2016, and a reduction to the average levels of exposure to air pollution for people living in areas above the WHO guidelines compared to 2016.

DEFRA’s analysis is a positive move forward, following on from Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement last week of his intention to include a commitment to reaching WHO guideline levels for PM2.5 in the Environment Bill.

However, we now need to see the Environment Bill brought forward as soon as possible and for the Bill to contain a commitment to fulfil this pledge by 2030, as recommended by the WHO, in order to drive action at the pace and scale required to protect the nation’s health.

Simon Gillespie, our Chief Executive said:

“It is great news that the Government has recognised that adopting WHO guidelines on air pollution is achievable. However, we now need to see the Environment Bill brought forward as soon as possible, adopting the guideline limits into law by 2030.

“Every day, thousands of people up and down the country are breathing in harmful particles that can have life threatening implications. Air pollution contributes towards an estimated 36,000 deaths a year in the UK alone, and our research shows that it can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

“Air pollution is a public health emergency, and this vital issue must remain a priority for the next Government. We look forward to seeing more evidence on the health benefits that more stringent limits will achieve. The next Government has the opportunity to use this as a vital platform to outline an ambitious, world leading plan and drive bold action to clean up our air and protect the nation’s health.”

Find out more about the impacts air pollution has on the heart