Some 2,220 GP practices and 248 hospitals across Britain are in areas where average levels of tiny particle pollution known as “particulate matter” or PM2.5 are above WHO limits.
These particles, the majority of which come from road transport in urban areas, are linked to causing and worsening diseases including asthma, coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.
And evidence is emerging of impacts on low birth weight, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the study by the British Lung Foundation and Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants (CERC) said.
Leeds, York, Sheffield and Hull were in May named among the UK’s 30 cities which breach WHO limits for air pollution, highlighting the scale of the problem gripping the region.
In England, one in three GP practices and one in four hospitals are located in areas that exceed the safe levels, according to the study, which analysed the postcodes of 9,988 NHS health centres against data for PM2.5 levels.
The British Lung Foundation (BLF) warned that air pollution is an urgent threat for the 12m people in the UK with lung conditions such as asthma, and called on the Government to take swift action.
BLF director of policy Alison Cook said: “It’s unacceptable that vulnerable people with NHS appointments are being exposed to toxic air that could make their health worse.”
The UK currently meets legal limits for PM2.5 but these are more than twice as high as the recommended ceiling from the WHO.
The Government should put the WHO limit for PM2.5 into UK law in the forthcoming Environment Bill, the charity urged.
Charging clean air zones should be brought into cities and towns with the dirtiest air, and there should be greater investment in air quality monitoring for places where vulnerable groups gather, such as hospitals.
Ms Cook said: “It can’t be right that hospital staff and GPs must care for people in environments that could worsen their symptoms and could be putting them at risk of a whole range of health problems further down the line.”
Dr Maria Neira, from WHO, said: “Hospitals and GP surgeries are the lungs and hearts of our health systems.
“No-one should have to be exposed to dirty air when visiting them.”
Millions of visits to A&Es for asthma every year across the globe may have been triggered by polluted air, according to an American study.
The research from George Washington University in Washington DC estimates that up to 33 million visits to emergency departments for asthma could have been caused by pollutants entering the lungs.
Susan Anenberg, lead author and associate professor at the university’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, said: “Our findings suggest that policies aimed at cleaning up the air can reduce the global burden of asthma and improve respiratory health around the world.”