The reality is that the effects of air pollution are being seen across Yorkshire and the Humber right now, with four in every 100 deaths in our region attributable to particulate air pollution. That figure is rising, with air pollution affecting our unborn children, our kids and our grandkids right now.
My interest, first and foremost, is in the health of our population. The evidence shows that unclean air is contributing to more children being born with lower birth weights, going on to develop asthma, their lungs not growing properly, fatty substances growing inside their arteries, later developing lung cancer and being at increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Unacceptable? Absolutely, and if our health protection team was tackling these risks because of polluted land in North Yorkshire or a water supply in South Yorkshire, I’d be asking ‘what can we do, how quickly can we do it, are we doing enough?’
So what exactly are you and I going to do about it? We all contribute to air pollution, so we all have a part to play. And it only takes relatively small changes, from all of us, to make a difference at scale.
One of the many actions we can take is to change the way we travel. Even using a petrol car rather than a diesel can make a big difference, especially in towns and cities where NO2 levels are likely to be highest. If the journey is less than a mile, walking or cycling should be considered where possible, and this has additional benefits of improving physical and mental health and quality of life. Public transport also makes a difference, reducing the number of cars on our roads. If driving is the only option, congestion can be reduced if people avoid travelling during morning and evening rush hours. Driving economically, by accelerating gently, adhering to speed limits, and ensuring tyre pressures are correct, saves money by using less fuel, reduces collisions and cuts air pollution.
We can also reduce pollution by turning off engines when waiting, especially when other people are nearby or when waiting for children during the school run. It’s been excellent to see schools across our region, including in Bradford, announcing that they’ll be introducing ‘no idling zones’ for school drop-off and pick-up times – what a difference that will make to their pupils and staff.
Improving our environment and health is not just about day-to-day travel choices. There are lots of day-to-day actions that can reduce emissions. Defra has provided practical guidance on the best use of open fires and wood-burning stoves, and turning down central heating and turning off appliances when they are in standby (or not in use) can all make a difference that adds up over time.
In the longer-term, we can consider lower-emission alternatives when buying our next car, updating our home central heating systems or carrying out other home improvements.
Our commitment at Public Health England is to continue working alongside local authorities to drive key interventions. Like promoting a step change in the uptake of low emission vehicles – by setting more ambitious targets for electric car charging points, as well as encouraging low emission fuels and electric cars. Encouraging investment in clean public transport, as well as foot and cycle paths to improve health – it’s been great to see school children encouraged to cycle to school in North Yorkshire. Also, the redesign of cities so people aren’t so close to highly polluting roads. In addition, discouraging highly polluting vehicles from entering populated areas – for example, with low emission or clean air zones like we’ll be seeing in Leeds, or the promotion of cycle facilities in Barnsley.
By making new developments clean by design, we can create a better environment for everyone, especially our children, and in the longer term put a halt to climate change. So this Clean Air Day, let’s use our opportunity to create a clean air generation of children. It’s not too late to combat air pollution, it’s not inevitable and we don’t have to accept it.
Dr Andrew Furber is centre director for Public Health England in Yorkshire and the Humber.