The UK Government and the World Health Organisation now recognise air pollution as one of the top health threats we face today, causing up to 36,000 deaths in the UK every year.
Poor air quality causes respiratory diseases, is linked to low birth weight and stunts children’s lung development and may even contribute to mental health issues. There is also mounting evidence of a link between air pollution and COVID-19. An international medical study linked long-term exposure to air pollution to an increased risk of dying from COVID-19. The study estimated 14 per cent of UK deaths from COVID-19 could be attributed to long-term exposure to air pollution. (In Europe the proportion was about 19 per cent, in North America it was 17 per cent, and in East Asia about 27 per cent).
A Harvard study also found a small increase in fine particulate matter leads to a large increase in COVID-19 deaths: an increase of just 1 microgram per cubic metre (μg/m3) in the long-term average PM2.5 is associated with an 11 per cent increase in COVID-19 mortality rate.
Air pollution also increases the risk of catching COVID-19 in the first place. Researchers from Queen Mary University of London found PM10 particulates increase the body’s susceptibility to contracting COVID-19 because the pollution particles stimulate the release of the enzyme ACE2, which the virus attacks.
The Government has a long-term strategy to improve air quality across the country. Low Emission Zones are one tool to reduce illegal levels of air pollution where the local authority has the power to put measures in place to restrict polluting vehicles from certain areas at certain times in order to improve air quality. Known as Clean Air Zones (CAZs) in England and Wales, Low Emissions Zones (LEZs) in Scotland and the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in London, polluting vehicles may, or may not, be charged for entering the area depending on how the zone is set up. There are currently four UK cities with low emission zones in place (Glasgow, London, Bath and Birmingham), with more set to launch this year.
Low emission zones work: in the first ten months of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone roadside nitrogen dioxide emissions were reduced by 44 per cent: nitrogen oxide emissions by 35 per cent; and carbon dioxide emissions by six per cent.
Low Emission Zones also provide an opportunity to create modal shift away from private cars and to public transport, walking and cycling. That’s why it’s important that places which implement a zone also ensure that there is a good public transport network which people can use as an alternative.
With traffic levels already exceeding pre-pandemic levels (Department for Transport data shows that weekday traffic regularly exceeds pre-pandemic levels, with weekend traffic even higher; on Sunday 6 June traffic reached 113 per cent of the pre-pandemic total) fuelled partly by an ongoing, if completely unfounded, reluctance to use public transport among some people, we all need to act now to avoid a future of ever rising car use.
Clean Air Day - the UK's largest air pollution campaign - aims to raise awareness of the effects of air pollution and what individuals, communities and businesses can do to help improve air quality. This Clean Air Day why not pledge to swap a car journey for a public transport one? Not only will you be helping play your part in improving air quality and reducing emissions from transport, you’ll be helping support a brighter transport future – one that is greener and fairer, that connects people rather than leaving them behind, that gives us clean air to breathe and a planet fit for the next generation.
Unless we all start to use our cars less and public transport, walking and cycling more, we face a future where transport continues to harm our health and wellbeing. That’s why we’re calling on the Government to champion public transport as we start to emerge from the current health crisis and invest in improving and expanding it for the future to ensure everyone has access to a high quality and affordable public transport network. Please email your MP using this simple form to ask them to support our campaign and public transport more generally or sign up to receive our email updates.
#TheWayForward is public transport.