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Tackling air pollution is vital for public health, say nurses

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There is a “moral imperative” for efforts to be made to improve air quality, with levels of pollution exacerbating respiratory symptoms, nurses have warned in response to a new report.

The report, published today by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, highlighted both the immediate- and long-term effects of air pollution on respiratory and general health.

“When our patients are exposed to such a clear and avoidable cause of death, illness and disability, it our duty to speak out”

Stephen Holgate

It has called for action to prevent air pollution from damaging and shortening the lives of future generations, claiming that around 40,000 deaths a year are linked to air pollution.

The report – titled Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution – warned that the harm from pollution was not just linked to short-term problems.

It noted examples from right across a lifespan, from a baby’s first weeks in the womb through to the years of older age.

Examples included the adverse effects of air pollution on the development of the foetus, including miscarriage, and increases in heart attacks and strokes for those in later life – as well as the associated links to asthma, diabetes, dementia, obesity and cancer.

In relation to asthma, the report stressed there was now compelling evidence that air pollution was associated with both reduced lung growth in childhood and new onset asthma.

In addition, the report highlighted the “often overlooked” issue of indoor air pollution from faulty boilers, open fires, fly sprays and air fresheners.

“I have seen examples of where people living with conditions such as asthma and COPD have been affected by the current quality of air exacerbating symptoms”

Matthew Hodson

While the government and the World Health Organization have set “acceptable” limits for various pollutants in our air, the report claimed there was no level of exposure that can be viewed as safe.

Among a range of recommendations calling on politicians and local councils to tackle the problem of air pollution via tighter regulations on emissions and traffic, the report suggested the NHS “lead by example”.

It said the “health service must no longer be a major polluter” and should instead set the “benchmark for clean air and safe workplaces”.

Professor Stephen Holgate, who chaired the working party that wrote the report, said: “When our patients are exposed to such a clear and avoidable cause of death, illness and disability, it our duty to speak out.”

The Association of Respiratory Nurse Specialists and Royal College of Nursing both welcomed the report and joined the call for action on pollution.

Amanda Cheesley

Amanda Cheesley

Amanda Cheesley

Amanda Cheesley, the RCN’s professional lead for long-term conditions and end of life care, said: “Air pollution is a public health issue – it often affects those who are already the most disadvantaged.

“Cuts to public health budgets mean that these health inequalities will only get worse – and the impact will be felt across the whole of society,” she said.

“The UK needs to make a concerted effort to reduce air pollution as part of its overall ambition to improve the health of all of its residents,” said Ms Cheesley.

She added: “There is a moral imperative to act now to prevent this and to make sure future generations breathe better air than this one.”

Matthew Hodson, chair of the Association of Respiratory Nurse Specialists, said: “ARNS welcomes this reports that highlights the impact of poor air quality and the effects of lifelong impact on health.

“I have seen examples of where people living with conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have been affected by the current quality of air exacerbating symptoms and affecting quality of life,” he noted.

Generic sky pollution

Professor Jonathan Grigg, vice chair of the report working party and representing the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “As NHS costs continue to escalate due to poor public health - asthma alone costs the NHS an estimated £1bn a year – it essential that policy makers consider the effects of long term exposure on our children and the public purse.

“We therefore call on government to monitor exposure to air pollution more effectively to help us identify those children and young people who are most at risk,” he said.

“We also ask the public to consider ways of reducing their own contribution to air pollution by taking simple measures such as using public transport, walking and cycling, and not choosing to drive high-polluting vehicles,” he added.


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