The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has described polluted air as a “slow and deadly poison” and warned of a growing national health emergency.
Hancock has commissioned a review of the impact of dirty air on health, including updated estimates of the number of new cases of illness that could be caused by air pollution by 2035.
Public Health England (PHE) predicted in May 2018 that there would be 2.4m new cases of disease by 2035 if current air pollution levels persisted. According to PHE, diseases with a strong association with air pollution include child asthma, coronary heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.
In January the government published its clean air strategy, which pledged to reduce people’s exposure to particulate matter and to halve the number of people living in areas breaching World Health Organization guidelines on particulate matter by 2025.
The new review aims to identify how many cases of disease the clean air strategy could prevent, and where more attention could be placed.
“Our health is shaped by the environment we live in and dirty air is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK,” Hancock said. “We cannot underestimate the very real impact that dirty air – this slow and deadly poison – is having on our lives, our health and our NHS.
“Our recent clean air strategy sets out some bold steps on cleaning up our air, but it is also vital that we have accurate long-term data on the potential health impacts of pollution. This review will help us map out how much disease is caused by dirty air and what steps we are taking to prevent this – something which is at the heart of our work to help people live longer, healthier lives through the NHS long-term plan.” .
The review will support the long-term plan’s pledge for the NHS to “go green”, which includes cutting business mileages and NHS fleet air pollutant emissions by 20% by 2023/24.
In 2017, 3.5% of all road travel in England – 9.5bn miles – was related to patients, visitors, staff and suppliers to the NHS.
Virtual appointments will replace a significant number of the around 400m face-to-face consultations that GPs and hospitals provide each year, to reduce the need for patient and staff travel. Over the next five years every patient will have the right to online “digital” GP consultations, and redesigned hospital support will remove the need for up to a third of outpatient appointments.
Prof Paul Cosford, the director for health protection and medical director at PHE, said: “Air pollution is an urgent and serious threat to the public’s health which needs a range of interventions to tackle effectively. This commission will help us to calculate how much the clean air strategy will improve health and whether more is needed to tackle this major public health problem.”