What does Brexit mean for pollution? | Samantha Heath

An estimated 40,000 people die prematurely each year from causes related to air pollution. Air pollution contributes to a myriad of health problems and we also know that those who live in deprived communities suffer disproportionately from the poorest air quality. The current situation has been described by cross party MPs as a ‘public health emergency’.


The health risks:

We know that poor air quality averages out to a “loss of life expectancy from birth of approximately six months” for every UK resident, in London the Policy Exchange reported that our life can be reduced by as much as eight years because of the pollution that we breathe. This is due not only to reduced lung capacity, but often our arteries can thicken, and we get more strokes and heart problems. And there is so much evidence now on why this really matters – especially the evidence is really unambiguous on the impact of pollution last month’s British Medical Journal – clearly linking pollution to incidences of strokes and an American study has shown that pollutants can impact on brain structure, which could lead to cognitive impairment.   And we know that London truly suffers from some seriously polluted spots.

The Lancet gave on information reporting that particulate matter in air pollution lead to lung cancer, particularly concerning that the World Health Organisation has said that there may that the guidelines for PM 2.5 – very small particles that get into our lungs is very low indeed, indeed no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed.

Despite this strong evidence base of grave health implications, perception of the importance of air quality to health, has been sporadic, however this year we have seen a fabulous scaling up of interest in the air we breathe – not just from people, but thankfully politicians as well. 

Our policies:

The EU was a key driver for change. EU laws and targets relating to air quality, as with waste, are enshrined in UK law. Perhaps there is a reason to be cheerful here. Could we braver and bolder, and even subscribe to World Health Organisation targets? WHO targets are more challenging than the EU targets, and therefore healthier, but they are likely to be opposed by our government.

The UK has yet to comply with EU limits on the pollutant for nitrogen dioxide – the legal limit for 2016 was broken within 8 days in some parts of London such as Putney high street. Last year Client Earth successfully challenged the government’s action plan and has a court date for October, this year. Whilst it is unlikely that the fines levied by the commission are unlikely to bite, the government still has to comply with UK law and provide a more comprehensive action plan.

Local authorities have important Public Health Duties; and communities in the UK are eager to hold them to their responsibilities. This autumn the National Institue of care and Health Excellence (NICE) are consulting on their guidance for local and regional authorities, which will provide important information on how public health teams can keep us safe – please look out for this consultation. Thankfully clean air is something that the London Mayor supports.

However, and pretty importantly, there is much talk about the UK continuing to trade with the EU – if we are to trade we would need to remain inside the European Economic Area. Existing pollution targets and rules will apply, however we may not have to adhere to future targets. This would have an important impact in say the Heathrow expansion. Obviously, we wouldn’t have any say over certain new regulations, but would need to adhere to them (e.g. future vehicle regulations).

We would recommend that all Londoners step in and respond to Mayoral consultations, and everybody else respond to the NICE work. However in order to clarify the legal commitment, we really do with a refreshed Clean Air Act across the UK.

Samantha Heath is Chief Executive of the London Sustainability Exchange and a SERA Executive Member.

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