Air quality experts, medics, politicians respond to Chief Medical Officer’s report

It’s been one week since England’s most senior medical advisor, Sir Chris Whitty, published an in-depth analysis of UK air quality, leading to a slew of comments from scientists, doctors, campaigners, politicians and more.

With between 26,000 and 38,000 annual deaths attributed to illnesses directly linked to air pollution in the UK alone, it’s no wonder many consider the planet’s toxic atmosphere to be the number one public health crisis of our time. 

white cloud on sky

(C) Aziz Ayad

Sir Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, explained this in his recent report on air pollution, and the grave risk it poses to so many lives, businesses and the environment itself. Far from the first time a voice of authority has spoken in such terms – revisit our feature with Dr Maria Neira, WHO’s Director of Public Health and Environment – his take on what we’re breathing in outlined that we know how to improve things. Sadly, though, we also often ignore best practice for political and economic reasons. 

In particular, Whitty’s work pointed to the growing problem of poor indoor air quality, an issue that has historically been overlooked, with the vast amount of research and investment going into outdoor, or ambient, air pollution. Meanwhile, the rise in wood burners as a means to heat the home due to the cost-of-living and energy crises, was identified as a major concern, as were emissions from agricultural slurry

With so much covered, it’s understandable that a broad range of professionals published their thoughts in the wake of the report. From scientists to local politicians, think tanks to doctors, here are some of the most informed and informative. 

Andrea Lee, Clean Air Campaigns Manager, ClientEarth

‘The recent history of air pollution in the UK isn’t a rosy picture as levels of fine particulate matter stagnated over the last decade and illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide rebounded after the Covid lockdowns. The Government seems to be asleep at the wheel.

‘Its recent, underwhelming proposals under the Environment Act to set a target to reduce fine particulate matter by 2040 are too little too late and would leave another generation of children exposed to dangerously dirty air. They are disregarding what top scientists and experts say is achievable and necessary.

‘On top of this, ministers have missed their own legal deadline to set these targets in law. This delay is costing people’s health and putting a further burden on our NHS and the economy. What will it take for the Government to get a grip on this public health threat?’

gray metal frame

(C) Zoltan Fekeshazy

Kate Langford, Director of the Health Effects of Air Pollution Programme, Impact on Urban health

‘Air pollution has devastating effects on people’s health and often disproportionately affects those who contribute the least to the problem, including children.

‘Our contribution to the Chief Medical Officer’s report on air pollution – and the contributions of our partners – shows air quality can be improved. Professor Whitty is right: We’ve made progress, but the Government and businesses have a responsibility to protect people from the devastating health effects of air pollution.

‘We’re encouraged to see a strong focus on indoor air quality in the report. People spend 80% of their time indoors. The last few years have reminded us of the extraordinary power of respiratory infections. Improving ventilation and indoor air quality is key for protecting people from ill-health and dangerous air pollution.’

Professor Kevin Fenton, London Regional Director of Public Health

‘Improvements in air quality have already led to better health in Londoners – we’ve recently seen reduced childhood asthma admissions, and further action will undoubtedly lead to a fall in coronary heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and many more serious illnesses.

‘There’s still plenty to be done – air pollution harms our health throughout our entire lifespan, and will affect some communities more than others. It’s vital that we continue to improve the quality of the air we breathe and help all Londoners to live longer, healthier lives.’

doctor holding red stethoscope

(C) Online Marketing

Sarah Clarke, President, Royal College of Physicians (RCP)
‘Air pollution is a growing and significant public health challenge, and we strongly welcome the Chief Medical Officer making this the focus of his annual report for 2022.

‘The RCP has been highlighting the harmful impacts of air pollution on health since 2016, when we published our report Every Breath We Take with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. We estimated then that around 40,000 deaths were attributable to outdoor air pollution, and since then a coroner found it to be a cause of death for the first time, that of 9-year-old Ella Adoo Kissi Debrah. The CMO’s report is an important contribution that makes clear why we must be proactive and ambitious in our efforts to improve both outdoor and indoor air quality for everyone.’

Dr Camilla Kingdon, President, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH)

‘As a Royal Medical College, we are dedicated to play our part in reducing air pollution, and therefore it is encouraging to read the Chief Medical Officers’ 2022 report. The report clearly sets out the health impacts air pollution can have across the life course, and confirms the different ways in which the health of children and young people is negatively impacted by high levels of air pollution.

‘I am particularly interested to see the link between health inequality and air quality addressed. Tackling health inequalities is core to RCPCH activity, and we have plans to further explore this emerging link with air pollution through 2023. We recently launched a fantastic toolkit which provides paediatricians with the skills to make a difference for children and families living in poverty. I encourage all RCPCH members to use it and upskill their practice.

‘It is crucial for us as paediatricians not only to recognise the effect living in areas of high pollution has on the health of our patients but to understand how to reduce the impact of both indoor and outdoor pollution, using practical solutions. Through our climate change working group, we will be looking to take forward the report’s recommendation regarding embedding air pollution into training for healthcare professionals, and supporting our members with building confidence in addressing air pollution with patients in their clinics.

‘As a College, we have long advocated that every child has a right to clean air. While this report recognises the progress achieved to date in cleaning our air, it also outlines the work that is urgently needed across all sectors to reduce air pollution. Stronger air quality targets are a key part of safeguarding the health of current and future generations, and we are pleased to support the progress of the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill through UK parliament, which is seeking to make #EllasLaw a reality. We remain committed to our advocacy on this topic throughout 2023.

Ross Matthewman, Head of Policy and Campaigns at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH)

‘CIEH welcomes the UK Chief Medical Officer’s annual report and believe his findings are very timely. This renewed focus on the impact air pollution has on public health, comes at a time when the UK Government is dragging its heels on introducing binding Air Quality targets it promised to introduce as part of the Environment Act passed only last year.

‘CIEH wish to take this opportunity to, once again, call on the government to fulfil their statutory duty by urgently introducing ambitious air quality targets. We must act now to reduce air pollution to protect public health. We can and should go further to reduce air pollution, and these recommendations are designed to do just that. We welcome the CMO’s calls for greater research into the effects indoor air pollution has on public health, and hope this report focuses the government’s mind on the need to take this issue seriously.’

Dr Gail Marzetti, Deputy CEO, National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR)

‘As Professor Whitty’s report so clearly explains, air pollution impacts us all, wherever we are and whatever we do. It is literally in the air that we breathe.

‘Alongside other measures to tackle climate change and address issues of sustainability, reducing air pollution is crucial if we are to save our planet and provide a secure future for our children. As the report shows, at the NIHR we are committed to contributing to this vital work.’

Matt Rooney, Head of Policy at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE)

‘The pandemic has shone a light on the issue of indoor air quality. Good ventilation and air sanitisation technology can reduce airborne disease transmission, but there are wider benefits.

‘Air pollution is associated with an increase in prevalence of a range of negative health effects, as well as reduced ability to concentrate. Air quality is therefore particularly important in our schools.

bird's eye view photo of white clouds

(C) Liane Metzler

‘As we in the engineering community implement solutions to reduce pollution and improve air quality, we must do so in an energy efficient and cost-effective manner. In solving one problem – air pollution – we do not want to make solving others – decarbonisation and the cost of living – more difficult. We are proud that our members co-authored the Outdoor and Indoor Air Pollution Solutions chapter in the report.’

Dr Sarah Moller, Senior Research Fellow at National Centre for Atmospheric Science, University of York

‘The UK’s transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions represents a real opportunity to deliver multiple environmental benefits, including improvements in air quality. However, we shouldn’t assume that this is inevitable.

‘We need to continue to engage with government departments to ensure that policy makers have the best scientific evidence available. This will enable them to appreciate how the choices they are making around net zero actions, and pathways, can deliver wider benefits such as better air quality.’

Sarah Muckle, Director of Public Health Bradford

‘I am delighted that Sir Chris Whitty has included Bradford’s case study in his annual Chief Medical Officer’s report. The research conducted and the solutions put in place by Born in Bradford, Bradford Council and other key stakeholders such as the Clean Air Plan are vital to improving the health of people who live and work in the district.’

Read our take on Sir Chris Whitty’s report here.


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