Opinion Former

High pollution days linked to medical emergencies

Increased rates of people suffering from cardiac arrests, strokes or severe asthma attacks are seen on poor air quality days in the UK’s major cities, according to new data collected by King’s College London.

The research with the UK100 network of local leaders found that across nine cities, days of higher pollution trigger an additional 124 out of hospital cardiac arrests, 231 hospitalisations for stroke and 193 for asthma.

Over half of these are in London. The study also includes data from Birmingham, Bristol, Derby, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and Southampton, many of which are obliged to introduce clean air zones. It is thought that more than half of urban air pollution comes from road transport.

“The impact of air pollution on our health has been crucial in justifying air pollution reduction policies for some time and mostly concentrates on effects connected to life expectancy,” said Dr Heather Walton of King’s College. “However, health studies show clear links with a much wider range of health effects.”

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said: “As these new figures show, air pollution is now causing thousands of strokes, cardiac arrests and asthma attacks, so it’s clear that the climate emergency is in fact also a health emergency.

“Since these avoidable deaths are happening now – not in 2025 or 2050 – together we need to act now.”

The research comes after the Mayor of London published figures claiming that the capital’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) – launched six months ago – has resulted in 13,500 fewer polluting cars being driven into the centre every day.

Emissions of NOx from road transport in the ULEZ are now 31% lower than if the scheme was not in place, the figures show, and there was a reduction in traffic flows in central London of between 3% and 9% from May to September.

The London Assembly’s environment committee chair Caroline Russell of the Green Party welcomed the figures, which she said show that the ULEZ is working.

“However, while it’s encouraging to see the ULEZ is cleaning up London’s air, there’s still so much more work to be done. The levels of nitrogen dioxide in central London are still well above the legal limit. This is not good enough. Londoners must be protected from the high levels of pollution in the capital.”

British Lung Foundation chief executive Dr Penny Woods also welcomed the success of the ULEZ, but said: “We know dirty air isn't just a problem in London. Most UK cities have illegal and unsafe levels of pollution.

“That’s why similar clean air zones must be urgently rolled out across the country to protect everyone’s lungs.”

Also this week, the City of Edinburgh Council has set out a road map for meeting its target of making Scotland’s capital carbon neutral by 2030, including plans to accelerate provision of electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Meanwhile the Department for Transport has launched a consultation on introducing green number plates for zero emission cars, which would make them easily identifiable to help their drivers benefit from local incentives such as free parking.

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