18 March 2019

Clean Air Zones should apply nationwide to curb air pollution deaths and boost well-being, say health experts

Clean Air Zones nationwide should be established and a raft of other vehicle emission-busting measures introduced.

What is a Clean Air Zone?

A defined area where action is taken to improve air quality. This action can include things like congestion charges or fines for high-polluting vehicles.

Where are Clean Air Zones?

These zones already exist in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Southampton and Derby.

Why do Public Health England want more Clean Air Zones?

Over 28,000 deaths are caused by air pollution making it the largest environmental risk to the public’s health.

This should include road pricing, to protect and improve the country’s health and wellbeing and help prevent between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths each year attributed to human-made air pollution.

They are among the conclusions of a 263-page report by Public Health England, which was commissioned by the Department for Health and Social Care to review the evidence for practical interventions to reduce harm from outdoor air pollution, stratified by their health and economic impact.

Claimed in the report to be “the largest environmental risk to the public’s health in the UK”, air pollution has a close association with cardiovascular and respiratory disease including lung cancer. There is also emerging evidence that other organs may also be affected, with possible effects on dementia, low birth weight and diabetes and emerging evidence that children in their early years are especially at risk, including asthma and poorer lung development.

The report, entitled ‘Review of Interventions to Improve Outdoor Air Quality and Public Health’, has been published just weeks before the April 8 introduction of London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone and as up to around 60 towns and cities across England consider introducing measures, including Clean Air Zones, to improve air quality.

Clean Air Zones, said the report, could be effective in reducing harm from air pollution in cities, but warned: “Local authorities need to work together. Air pollutants don’t respect borders, and there is little benefit in reducing air pollution in one population centre but increasing it elsewhere. Neighbouring authorities therefore need to work together, especially on interventions that apply to defined spatial areas, such as Clean Air Zones.”

Acknowledging that Clean Air Zones were most effective at reducing transport emissions locally, it added: “But they can also have national benefits if implemented at many areas across the country.”

Alongside low emission modes of transport, such as electric vehicles; national road pricing and increased fuel duty and other tax measures targeted at the most polluting vehicles, Clean Air Zones nationally could “deliver the highest public health benefit”, said the report.

Investment in infrastructure and public transport was also required, said the report, along with the promotion of active travel and complementary behavioural interventions.

Calling on employers and private and public-sector organisations to engage with local initiatives and “play their part”, other interventions advocated by the report to cut vehicle emissions included:

  • Anti-idling interventions in pollution hotspots or close to vulnerable receptors, such as schools, hospitals and care homes
  • Driving restrictions, which have sometimes been used during episodes of high air pollution
  • Abatement retrofit, though cost was a potential barrier, particularly for private vehicles
  • Eco driving, while training was too often limited to the transport delivery and freight sector, there was also a requirement to frequently provide refresher training to drivers to maintain fuel efficiency savings.

Professor Paul Cosford, director of health protection and medical director at Public Health England, said: “The inexorable rise of road, air and sea transport, industrialisation of food production and many other factors means air quality remains a major issue for the public’s health.”

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing, and reduce health inequalities and provides government, local government, the NHS, Parliament, industry and the public with evidence-based professional, scientific and delivery expertise and support.