Air quality in UK could reach WHO targets by 2030 if reforms delivered

If the government implements planned environmental, transport and clean air policies, air pollution levels could fall within the recommended interim target from the World Health Organization (WHO) across most parts of the UK by 2030, according to a new study from the Clean Air Fund and Imperial College London.

The research found that implementing existing government plans by 2030 would have significant positive impacts on public health and could lead to children across the UK suffering an average of 388,000 fewer days of asthma symptoms a year, as well as a significant fall in cases of coronary heart disease and a rise in average life expectancy of 9-10 weeks across those born in 2018.

In total, the health and economic benefits, including reduced pressure on the NHS and higher productivity, could be worth up to £380bn between 2018 and 2134.

‘This is a win, win, win scenario,’ said Jane Burston, Executive Director at the Clean Air Fund. ‘This new research shows us that achieving much healthier air is possible across the vast majority of the UK by 2030 based on policies the government already plans to implement or that have been recommended by the Committee on Climate Change. The new air quality target for the UK should therefore align with WHO-10 at a minimum, with a view to further reducing pollution beyond this in the future. It is necessary, beneficial and achievable, and will save lives and money.’

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The WHO guideline limit for PM2.5 was updated in 2021 to account for growing scientific evidence on the dangers of even low levels of air pollution, with the guideline limit reduced from an annual average of 10 micrograms per cubic metre (WHO-10) to 5 micrograms per cubic metre, with WHO-10 now an interim target.

The current UK target is 20 micrograms per cubic metre – four times higher than the new WHO recommendation – and is due to be updated later this year.

The research shows that the WHO-10 interim target is achievable across the UK by the end of the decade, with less than 1% of the country predicted to experience pollution above the WHO interim target.

Making a legal commitment to reduce PM2.5 levels to below WHO-10 would make the UK the second European county to do so, setting an example for other countries tackling air pollution.

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, BreatheLife Ambassador and Founder of the Ella Roberta Family Foundation, commented: ‘We are in a public health crisis and we can’t keep ignoring it. Nine years since Ella’s passing, the same number of children are dying from asthma every year — even though medications and expertise have improved while smoking has declined. Health professionals are clear that air pollution is an urgent but also solvable problem. The goal to lower PM2.5 pollution to 10 micrograms must be the first stop on the way to meeting the WHO’s new strengthened guidelines for protecting public health – and 2030 should be the absolute latest that we achieve it. This is about saving children’s lives today, not 10 years from now.’

Sarah Woolnough, CEO at Asthma + Lung UK, added: ‘It’s time for the government to stop dragging its heels and accept that ambitious clean air targets, set in law, are essential if we are to prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths each year. Our current legal limits are unfit for purpose, at least double the limit of that set out in this report, and four times the recommended level outlined by the World Health Organization in September.

‘How many children have developed asthma, seen their symptoms worsen or been admitted to hospital because our clean air targets don’t protect them? Breathing toxic air creates new lung conditions and worsens existing ones like asthma and COPD, leading to life-threatening attacks and flare ups. 60% of people with asthma tell us that air pollution is a trigger for their symptoms; if these targets are reached, hundreds of thousands of children with asthma across the country could breathe easier. This would be life-changing for so many families and young people.

‘This report shows that we mustn’t accept anything less than meeting the World Health Organization’s guideline interim target of 10µg/m3 by 2030, with ambition to go further.’

Photo by Matt Boitor


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2 years ago

All very well but not clear to me what these reforms will amount to and whether the public will abide by them. Will idling engines be banned? The buses in my town centre waiting to move off are notorious for pumping diesel fumes over passengers not yet on board and many of those are school children. It’s the same with smoking chimneys. Even if someone has a brand new log burner, they can ruin the flue lining by burning rubbish and damp wood. All of that counts as pollutoin but I doubt it will be stopped. We’d need an army of council officers to go round checking that everyone is obeying the rules. Or do you think the public will simply understand the need for change and do the right thing? It took a very long time to convince anyone that cigarettes are harmful and plenty still smoke even though it is less than before. Time for an big education campaign.

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