Air pollution: research tackles a silent killer

Low emission zone sign

Credit: ChrisSteer/GettyImages

Air pollution causes over seven million deaths worldwide. It is a global health emergency. UKRI-funded researchers are helping tackle the issue.

Lives saved, better health, lower costs, a cleaner environment – UKRI-funded science empowers government, business and wider society to tackle air pollution.

Clean air underpins everything we need and value:

  • our physical health
  • our mental wellbeing
  • our quality of life
  • the environment we depend on.

Poor air quality, then, presents serious risks. In the UK it is the fourth biggest danger to public health, contributing to over 40,000 deaths and carrying an estimated annual cost of £20 billion to health services and businesses.

A recent study has shown that exposure to air pollution increases COVID-19 deaths by 15% worldwide. Read the study into air pollution and risk of death from COVID-19 (Oxford Academic website).

It also has wider implications, including links to:

  • dementia
  • heart disease
  • some types of cancer
  • damaged buildings
  • lower crop yields
  • harm to ecosystems
  • climate change.

UKRI investment

Decades of UKRI investment have played a critical role in understanding and tackling air pollution.

With a clear focus on generating practical solutions, our support includes:

  • cutting-edge research
  • collaborations with government and businesses
  • world-class infrastructure
  • long-term monitoring
  • targeted training.

UKRI-funded science has helped inform policy and led to government action that has helped save countless lives.

Informing government action

In recent years, the air we breathe has become a high profile political issue for the UK, with researchers supported by UKRI having a key role in its new prominence.

Research at the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) National Centre for Atmospheric Science was a key platform for the UK’s clean air strategy 2019.

Their work, for example, triggered a new policy approach to cutting emissions of volatile organic compounds. It prompted vehicle manufacturers to act, as well as providing the foundation for London’s ultra low emission zone.

Since London’s ultra low emission zone was introduced, nitrogen dioxide emissions in the city have fallen by 44%.

Protecting children through low emission zones

We know from birth cohort studies that exposure to air pollution has been associated with:

  • babies being born underweight
  • poorer cognitive development and lung function during childhood.

Read the air pollution during pregnancy and childhood birth cohort study (Epidemiology website).

Many cities are now trying to tackle this problem by improving urban air quality using low emission zones.

But is it enough?

Research was published by scientists at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Environment and Health. It has shown that while these measures are beginning to improve air quality, they have not yet protected children from the harmful effects of air pollution.

But promisingly, a more recent report by scientists at Imperial College London’s Environmental Research Group has predicted that life expectancy for children in London will improve by six months. This is as a result of newer air quality policies such as the ultra low emission zones. Read about the Imperial College London air pollution report (Imperial website).

It highlights that we need more interventions that deliver bigger reductions in harmful emissions, and we must implement more policies that will improve air quality and protect children’s health.

Empowering people through daily forecasts

Accurate daily forecasts enable people to reduce their exposure to air pollution.

This is especially valuable for those whose health suffers when pollution levels are high, such as people with asthma and heart disease.

Data from the NERC-funded Clean Air for London (Clearflo) project, for example, underpins the London Air Quality Network’s daily air-quality forecasts relied on by individuals and local government.

Air pollution can also make the health effects of heatwaves worse, as they increase levels of ozone and other pollutants.

NERC-funded research improved the accuracy of Met Office air quality forecasts during heatwaves, saving an estimated 24 lives for every 10 days of heatwave.

Thinking bigger than cleaner cookstoves

Almost half the world’s population rely on open fires for cooking that use biomass fuels, such as charcoal or wood.

When used indoors, these lead to high levels of household air pollution from smoke, and are linked to many chronic respiratory illnesses.

Replacing these open fires with cleaner burning biomass-fuelled cookstoves has long been considered an easy win.

However, a team of scientists have shown that it may not be that simple. They carried out a randomised trial to compare the effects of the two cooking methods on pneumonia in children living in rural Malawi. Read the cleaner burning biomass-fuelled cookstove trial (The Lancet website).

They found no evidence that cleaner burning cookstoves reduced the risk of pneumonia, highlighting the need to develop evidence-based policies to tackle the effects of household air pollution.

The team were funded through the Joint Global Health Trials grant from:

  • MRC
  • UK Department for International Development
  • Wellcome Trust.

Megacity pollution

Miranda Loh is an environmental health scientist at the Institute of Occupational Medicine, an independent research organisation.

Her work on measuring people’s exposures to air pollution in Chinese, Thai, and Indian cities is supported by UKRI NERC and MRC.

Here, she says, the major sources of air pollution which are especially harmful to the young, include:

  • coal-fired power stations
  • large industrial plants
  • smaller intra-urban industries
  • domestic cooking join vehicles.

Refugee health

And UKRI MRC and AHRC have supported her work, with an interdisciplinary team of:

  • scientists
  • artists
  • social scientists.

The work focusses on understanding exposures to air pollution and residents’ awareness of air pollution in informal settlements in Kenya.

Here, the use of fuels such as charcoal for cooking and heating can produce highly polluted air.

She warns too that:

In the developed world, everyone encounters cars, buses and lorries, so vehicles are usually the most important source of outdoor pollution in urban areas.

But even here, indoor sources such as wood burning stoves can be major contributors.

Masks and meters

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is supporting Loh in a citizen science project on the accuracy of cheap consumer devices for measuring air pollution.

And she has done work on evaluating the effectiveness of masks for limiting exposure to air pollution.

This work on respiratory protection also informs thinking on protection from COVID-19.

Decades of UKRI investment have played a critical role in understanding and tackling air pollution with a clear focus on generating practical solutions. We are committed to funding research to better understand air pollution and to find new ways of addressing it.

Last updated: 16 June 2021

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