Clean Air Day or Hot Air Day 2021 following Government response?
This year’s Clean Air Day on 17th June 2021, organised by Global Action Plan to build awareness of how air pollution affects our health and to explain what we can all do to help tackle the problem, coincided with the publication of new government measures intended to help tackle the air pollution problem.
In December 2020, the inquest into the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who lived in close to the South Circular road in Lewisham, found that she was exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter that exceeded World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines and European Union legal limits. Ella was the first person in the UK to have air pollution exposure recorded as a cause of death.
Following the inquest, the Coroner published a Report to Prevent Future Deaths on 20 April 2021 in which he raised several concerns:
- The evidence revealed there are no safe levels for particulate matter, and WHO guidelines should be seen as a minimum requirement. The Coroner noted that legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of air pollution related deaths in the UK.
- There is low public awareness of national and local pollution levels. Greater awareness would help individuals reduce their exposure to air pollution. Such information must be sufficiently detailed, likely requiring an enlargement of the capacity to monitor air quality, for example by increasing the number of air quality sensors.
- The adverse effects of air pollution on health are not sufficiently communicated to patients and their carers by medical and nursing professionals.
The Coroner’s report was sent to 14 bodies including Central Government, the Local Government, the Mayor of London and various clinical and public health authorities.
The government’s response
As required, the government provided their response to the Coroner’s report, putting forward a range of measures including:
- Action to increase public awareness about air pollution including a review of existing sources of information as well as consideration of a new national SMS alert system. The government has stated that the action will include a comprehensive review of existing sources of information – including UK Air and the Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI) – to include more specific messaging for different population groups and that they will consider working with relevant health charities on longer-term campaigns aimed specifically at vulnerable groups.
- An additional £6 million will be added to the annual funding pot for local authorities as part of the Air Quality Grant scheme. The government says that part of this fund will be dedicated to improving public awareness in local communities about the risks of air pollution and will also “encourage collaboration with local public health bodies to, for example, provide guidance to vulnerable groups about the health impacts from air pollution and the steps they can take to minimise their exposure”.
- NHS England and Improvement will continue to work on a more systematic approach to asthma management.
Disappointingly, the government did not commit to implement legally binding air quality targets in line with WHO guidelines, despite the clear indication that doing so would reduce the number of air pollution related deaths. Instead the government intends to launch a consultation on new legal targets for air pollution but not before January 2022, with resulting legislation not expected until October 2022., The government only says that it has, “used the World Health Organisation guidelines on PM2.5 to inform its ambitions in shaping these targets”, avoiding a firm commitment towards implementing the WHO guidelines as new targets.
Critics have accused the government of repackaging old commitments and have called for urgent new legislation that puts the WHO guidelines into law.
Global Action Plan recently published research that shows that more than a quarter of UK schools - equating to an estimated 3.4 million children - are in locations with high levels of small particle pollution. A recent report from the University of Manchester underlined the dangers air pollution poses to brain health in children. The Coroner in the Kissi-Debrah inquest clearly stated that effective action on air pollution would reduce the number of related deaths: currently estimated at 36,000 annually in the UK. All of this demonstrates the urgent need for real action instead of consultation.
Governments across the world are increasingly seeing legal claims brought against them by citizens who are concerned about the impact climate change will have on their lives if no urgent action is taken. Given the grave public health risks, we are of the view that the UK will not be immune to similar legal action aimed at reducing air pollution. Effective mitigation strategies swiftly put in place by central and local government could mitigate that trend and better safeguard individuals from the health harms now firmly linked with persistent exposure to air pollution.
With thanks to Trainee Emilio Graham for co-authoring this blog.