Wed 29 Aug 2018 13.09 EDT
A study published this week shows that air pollution has an alarming effect on our cognitive abilities. Shocking as this conclusion is in itself, the report joins a long list of research linking toxic air to serious health problems, and demonstrates the devastating consequences air pollution has on people living in towns and cities across the UK.
As a doctor working in A&E, I was shocked by the number of children I treated this summer whose health was harmed by air pollution. I saw children choking with asthma and struggling to breathe.
I feel I have a duty to speak up about issues that have serious impacts on people’s health.
Air pollution is a public health crisis. Long-term exposure to diesel fumes can be carcinogenic, especially for children. Prolonged exposure to air pollution has also been known to cause asthma in otherwise healthy children, and to permanently stunt children’s lung growth by up to 10%. That can have lifelong health implications for children growing up in our cities.
On days with heavy air pollution there are things you can do to protect yourself, including staying away from busy roads, avoiding heavy cardiovascular exercise, and keeping children inside to play. Crucially, avoid driving if you can, as it will only make the pollution problem worse – and you’ll be at least as exposed to pollution as if you were walking or cycling.
But ordinary people shouldn’t need to change their behaviour or keep their children inside to protect their lungs. Instead, we need to clean up our dirty air for good. Across the UK many of our cities have illegally high levels of air pollution. A Greenpeace Unearthed investigation found that more than 1,000 nurseries nationwide are close to illegally polluted roads. No one should live in a polluted city, and government must take responsibility for tackling this health emergency.
Diesel fuel is one of the biggest sources of pollution in many towns and cities across the UK. That means we need to introduce clean air zones to protect people in some of the worst polluted areas, and to move away from polluting diesel cars altogether. And it means holding the car companies pushing diesels on to our roads to account for their part in causing the UK’s air pollution crisis. This is why a group of health professionals joined Greenpeace last week to shut down the headquarters of VW, the company selling the most diesel cars in the UK.
As well as this, our cities badly need better infrastructure for active travel, so that people can safely walk and cycle, and green, reliable and affordable public transport that means people can actually choose to leave their cars at home.
As our knowledge of the link between air pollution and ill health grows, so does the weight of our responsibility towards those affected by it, especially the next generation. We won’t be able to tell them that we didn’t know, or that we didn’t have a solution. If we fail, it’ll be because we didn’t want to succeed.
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