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Our lungs need clean air zones

This post is by Zak Bond, policy and public affairs officer at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation

Last year for the first time in the world, a coroner listed air pollution as a cause of death on a death certificate. Nine year old Ella Kissi-Debrah had asthma and lived by London’s traffic filled south circular road, and this was a key factor in the coroner’s ruling. Ella’s story has brought into sharp relief the devastating impact air pollution can have on our lives more powerfully than any statistic.

The air pollution that fills our towns and cities poses a very real and potent danger to our health. Toxic gases and tiny particles cut thousands of lives short every year and cause symptoms to develop for many more, and the majority of it comes from motor vehicles.

Evidence shows that clean air zones, which charge the most polluting vehicles to enter the most polluted areas, are one of the most effective ways to quickly tackle toxic air. To meet the scale of this health crisis, zones should be rolled out in cities and towns across the country. They should be ambitious and include all the most polluting vehicles, including private cars. In London, we know that the ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) has done just this. London’s City Hall found that, in just ten months, it cut NO2 levels by 44 per cent.

Crucially, clean air zones need to be joined up with action that also makes space for safe walking and cycling and cleans up public transport fleets, so people have a real alternative to driving.

Polluted air is limiting people’s lives
Air pollution has a significant impact on people with lung conditions.  For our new report, The Invisible Threat we spoke to many people with a lung condition to find out what impact dirty air has on them.

We learnt that air pollution is trapping many people in their homes: 60 per cent of people with a lung condition, affected by air pollution, say they’ve been discouraged from leaving their homes due to high levels of air pollution at some point. Imagine waking up in the morning and having to decide if stepping out of your front door is worth the risk?

Air pollution can often trigger flare-ups in conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cause asthma attacks, and it has even led to some people being hospitalised. We’ve found that 63 per cent of people with a lung condition can feel out of breath, 53 per cent cough more due to high levels of air pollution and 58 per cent of people with asthma have their condition triggered by air pollution.

The physical effects of air pollution also impact people’s mental health and reduce their ability to socialise and access treatment. Many people with a lung condition told us dirty air remains a major barrier to them walking and cycling, reducing their ability to be part of the solutions needed to tackle toxic air.

Air pollution may also be causing irreversible damage to children’s growing lungs, with estimates suggesting children growing up in highly polluted areas are four times more likely to have reduced lung function in adulthood. Exposure to high levels of air pollution can increase respiratory symptoms in children, and there is growing evidence it might be causing new cases of asthma. Emerging evidence has even shown that it might be linked with damage to children’s brains and cognitive development.

Covid has highlighted the priority of lung health
Clearly, this is a public health crisis and we need to get the most polluting vehicles out of our towns and cities urgently.

Over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed lung health to the front of all our minds. It has turned the world upside down and shone a spotlight on the devastating impact respiratory conditions have on people’s lives. It has shown us the importance of building resilient and healthy societies that can better withstand shocks, both now and in the future. To help that happen, it’s crucial that the government supports local decision makers to roll out successful clean air zones in our towns and cities to protect everyone’s health, improve the quality of life of people with a lung condition, and save lives.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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