Evidence review by Imperial College London maps impact of air pollution through life

An ‘evidence highlight note’ released by a team of  researchers from London Imperial College’s Environment Research Group has examined a huge range of research published since the 2016 Royal College of Physicians report ‘Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution’.

Accepting that the RCP report had established the fact that the effects of air pollution are long-term, the team sought to fill in some gaps that might have opened in the seven years since.

258 children in London measured air pollution using backpacks with built-in air quality sensors

More than 30,000 separate studies into the effects of poor air quality have been carried out in the last ten years and many of these have been sourced in the note to create a path of air pollution implications through a human life:

The note is divided into sections focusing on different stages of life, from pre-foetal development until early adulthood. It aims to summarise key evidence, drawing on recent academic research studies, with an emphasis on those carried out in the United Kingdom, London, or cities with similar levels of air pollution.

The group consider that perhaps the most important new finding is evidence related to both the impact of air pollution on brain health, including mental health and dementia, and early life impacts that could lead to future health burdens within the population. Coincidentally, it was announced last week that the Clean Air Day theme this year is ‘Clean up our air to look after your mind.’ 

The publication of the review was promoted in an embargoed press release from the Mayor of London’s office which highlighted the following key findings:

  • Emerging evidence suggests that air pollution begins to negatively affect people before they conceive by lowering sperm count and mobility
  • Air pollution can also impair normal foetal development in the womb, increasing the risk of miscarriage, low birth weight and pre-term births.
  • Children living in London are particularly at risk of developing lifelong, chronic conditions, including poorly developed lungs, asthma, high blood pressure, inattention and hyperactivity, and mental illness.
  • The health impacts of air pollution exposure continue well into old age, increasing the risk of stroke, dementia, cancer, multiple longer-term illness including respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and early death.

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan said: ‘This review from experts at Imperial College London is a startling reminder that toxic air is a matter of life and death, and that everyone – from our very youngest to our most elderly – is at risk of developing serious, lifelong health complications.

‘We know that air pollution is damaging the health of Londoners in every single borough of London. That’s why there really is no time to waste in introducing measures like the expansion of the ULEZ to ensure that we protect the health of Londoners and build a safer, greener city for everyone.’

Dr Gary Fuller, air pollution scientist from Imperial’s Environmental Research Group and lead author of the new report said: ‘There is increasing evidence that impacts of air pollution are hiding in plain sight in the burden of chronic illness that affects so many people. These air pollution impacts affect our quality of life and have a large cost to society through additional health and social care costs, as well our ability to learn, work and contribute to society. The latest evidence, reflected in the new WHO guidelines, tell us that current levels of air pollution will be affecting everyone in London, including those living in the least polluted suburbs, and especially those with pre-existing vulnerabilities.’

Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, a special adviser on air quality to the Royal College of Physicians and UK Research and Innovation Clean Air Champion said: ‘I welcome this review by Imperial’s Environmental Research Group which emphasises that air pollution harms us in all phases of life. All the latest evidence shows that the systemic effects of pollutants extend beyond the cardiopulmonary system to affect many other organs, increasing the risk of disease from conception and across a lifetime like tobacco smoking. Even because we cannot see it, air pollution, as currently encountered in the UK, should be taken much more seriously than has been the case.’




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