Sir Chris Whitty releases new report on UK air pollution

England’s Chief Medical Officer, who advised the government throughout the pandemic, Sir Chris Whitty, has focused on air pollution in a new report.  

Air pollution has significant implications for health, killing an estimated 26,000 – 38,000 people every year due to illnesses like heart disease and lung cancer.  

Witty highlighted the huge improvements made since the 1980s in the report, with sulphur dioxide from coal and lead from petrol now minimal but said ‘we can and should go further to reduce air pollution.’  

The medical officer said indoor air pollution in particular needs to be resolved, as most of our days are spent indoors, either for work, study or leisure.  

body of water under cloudy sky during sunset

‘The path to better outdoor air quality is clear, and we now need to go down it,’ the report reads. ‘Indoor air pollution is becoming an increasing proportion of the problem as improvements in outdoor air pollution occur. 

‘While there are some spaces such as owner-occupied houses that are fully private, many indoor spaces are public, including health facilities, schools, other public buildings, and also shops and workplaces. As with outdoor spaces, people in public buildings are exposed to air pollution but can do little about it, so society needs to act.’  

This point should be acknowledged in the planning and development of public indoor spaces, the report suggests, while energy efficient effective ventilation is key to achieving net zero and reducing air pollution deaths.  

Witty said the momentum on electric vehicles must be maintained to tackle roadside pollution too, but this will not eliminate emissions from tyres and road wear.  

Agricultural pollution was mentioned in the report, as ammonia can create particulate matter which can have health impacts over a wide area.  

There is a lot of room for improvement here, since ammonia emissions have reduced little over the past decades. Witty suggests the precision application of slurry to soil and the covering of slurry-stores could make a difference.  

The rising use of wood burners is also a concern, as even ‘ecodesign’ stoves produce 450 times more air pollution than gas central heating. They have grown more popular over time too, as wood burning has increased by more than a third from 2010 to 2020.  

Witty suggested people be informed of the health effects of wood burning and be advised on the benefits of certain stove designs and the burning of dry wood over wet. The rules of smoke control areas should also be enforced, he said.  

Photo by Marek Piwnicki


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