The UK must do more to recognise the long-term health impacts of exposure to air pollution, England’s Chief Medical Officer has warned.
Writing in her annual report published today, Professor Dame Sally Davies highlights that environmental pollution is driving chronic sickness and should be recognised as a health risk alongside an environmental one.
Citing a ‘lack of evidence’ in the area, the CMO has called for the UK to widen its scope to understand the impact of consistent, long-term, exposure to air pollution as well as the effects of excess noise, light and other chemical pollutants.
The report, which includes input from researchers at Imperial’s School of Public Health, sets out a number of recommendations to reduce the impact on public health, including improvements to the collection and use of data on pollutant exposures, exploring the use of indoor air monitors, and a strong focus on evidence-based actions for local authorities.
“The sheer volume of health data available provides excellent opportunities for research, but we must invest in ways to capture, curate and analyse this information. Professor Paul Elliott Director of the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment & Health at Imperial
Contributing evidence on epidemiological data, researchers at the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment & Health based at Imperial outline the current state of data available, describing new opportunities to investigate the impacts of environmental pollution on health.
The researchers explain that data obtained from registries of blood and urine samples could be used to screen for common biomarkers - for example, levels of proteins associated with inflammation - which could help to study the effects at the population level.
The team concludes that continued support and funding from government is needed to monitor exposure to pollutants and the longer-term health effects. They add that this will require full access to health data and other sources and should be afforded the same legal and ethical protections as control of infectious diseases.
In addition, Laure de Preux and Franco Sassi from Imperial's Centre for Health Economics & Policy Innovation, contributed to a chapter on the economics of pollution.
Improving use of data
Professor Paul Elliott, director of the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment & Health, said: “The sheer volume of health data available provides excellent opportunities for research, but we must invest in ways to capture, curate and analyse this information.
“In order to carry out this type of research we need high-quality data and need to maintain close partnerships between government, public health and research institutions – something the Small Area Health Statistics Unit has done over the last thirty years.”
"Another important research initiative in which we could have a real impact is through establishing a population biomarker panel – using data from blood and urine samples at a population level.
"Data on this scale would enable us to pick apart the complex genetic and lifestyle factors and explore how people may be affected differently by exposure to environmental pollution.”
The report also calls for the NHS to cut its pollutant footprint and lead by example for the rest of the country to follow.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, said: “We all know the environmental impacts of pollution—but what is less recognised is the impact on health.
“With factors like air, light and noise - the public is exposed to a daily cocktail of pollutants. Some of these can be linked to chronic conditions like heart disease and asthma. This increases the risk for some of the most vulnerable members of our society and places a huge burden on our health service.
“Everybody has a role to play in cutting pollution but the NHS has more than a million staff, accounts for one in 20 vehicles on the road and is a big user of single-use disposable plastics. Some trusts are already blazing a trail and I urge others to follow.
“We also urgently need to up our game and gather better information on how factors like light, noise and chemical pollution are affecting us.”
The full report can be read online.
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