We know when our water is dirty but it’s much more difficult to ‘see’ whether our air is clean or not. Chances are it’s not as clean as we think it is – with outdoor pollutants from lorry and car exhaust fumes, and indoor pollutants from burning gas and wood in the home, respiratory infections circulating rapidly in classrooms as well as the outdoor poisonous stuff coming in! So what can we do about it?
Well it’s not rocket science – we can reduce the pollutants and we can clean the air we breathe.
Cleaning air is good for human health in many ways: it not only benefits physical health and the environment but can also protect mental and brain health. The physical health impacts of air pollution – such as asthma, heart disease, and cancers – have been recognised for decades.
More recently, researchers are beginning to understand how air pollution can affect the brain and the mind. When a person breathes polluted air, small pollution particles can enter through the lungs, into the bloodstream and can reach the brain. People who breathe polluted air are more likely to develop mental health and brain conditions. Being exposed to air pollution is linked to mental health and brain conditions such as depression, anxiety and dementia.
The impact on children
Children are still developing their organs and immune systems, and their smaller bodies and airways make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water. Because of their size, children are also often closer to sources of air pollution, like car exhausts, than adults.
Air pollution can play a part in causing asthma for some children and for children with asthma, being exposed to more air pollution can increase how bad their symptoms are and how often they have chronic symptoms.
Being exposed to air pollution can also affect children’s lung function development. In areas with high air pollution, it could be setting some children up for health problems throughout their lives. Research is beginning to point towards effects of air pollution on children’s developing brains, such as reduced memory function.
Clean Air Day 2023
Clean Air Day, the UK’s largest campaign on air pollution is happening on Thursday 15 June 2023 with the key message “Clean up our air to look after your mind this #CleanAirDay”.
Days of action like Clean Air Day are important as it focuses attention on air pollution. Clean Air Day helps to improve public understanding and increase levels of air pollution busting behaviours – most people (90%) now report doing at least one thing to help reduce outdoor air pollution. It also shows that a cleaner air future is possible and demonstrates large-scale support for clean air – 82% of people think that air pollution should be a priority for the UK an increase of 11% over the last three years.
The Clean Air Bill
Many countries have already enshrined a right to clean air through legislation. In the UK, a private members bill is being sponsored by Caroline Lucas MP and Baroness Jenny Jones who are sponsoring a Clean Air Bill, also known as Ella’s Law, to receive royal assent.
If passed, it would give the UK Health Security Agency enhanced powers to review pollutants and their limits and would establish a Citizens’ Commission for Clean Air that could institute legal proceedings. It is named in memory of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah who suffered a fatal asthma attack brought on by traffic fumes aged nine years old.
It is estimated that improving air pollution would save money from reduced absence from work and significant savings for the NHS. In parallel with the bill, the Government is consulting on its own targets to reduce average particle pollution by 35%. According to Government analysis, the benefits from these actions would be five times greater than the money than spent cleaning our air.
Cleaning the air we share – it’s not rocket science
Despite what many would see as the compelling arguments for action, reducing pollutants is taking time – not least because although we all want clean air, some of the measures being suggested are controversial and unpopular with the public such as to stop wood burning at home, reducing car journeys etc. But we have the technology to clean the air we breathe in all public buildings and at home now and given we spend more than 90% of our time indoors, we could get immediate significant benefits now – we just need to act!
There are two simple actions – ventilate and filter – that we can take whilst we wait for legislation and other Government action to be implemented. Firstly ventilate – simply opening windows where we can and allowing fresh air in can reduce carbon dioxide and other indoor pollutants and allow us to breathe cleaner air. This will not be possible everywhere and won’t get rid of all pathogens so the second, complementary action is to clean indoor air using air filters in classrooms, health care facilities and at home.
Science and engineering are coming to our rescue with the development of effective air filters, both commercially manufactured and DIY versions, which use specially designed high grade filters (sometimes called HEPA – High Efficiency PArticulate) to effectively remove a range of airborne particles which carry viruses such as flu and Covid, as well as other aerosol particles such as traffic pollution, pollen, fungal spores (which cause mould) and bacteria.
The best known DIY air filter is the Corsi Rosenthal box, one is effective enough to clean the air in a classroom to WHO standards, meet all Department of Education requirements and costs around £100. A recently published paper by the National Education Union states that research has shown that improved air quality and the effect this has on cognition, the installation of an air filter in a classroom can improve test scores by as much as cutting the size of the class by a third.
The clean air revolution
The clean air revolution is happening all over the world! The US government has provided hundreds of billions of dollars to improve indoor air quality, including $350bn for state and local governments, as well as $122bn for schools with $30mn air purifier program for Illinois schools, Oregon has so far invested in 18,700 air purifiers to improve classroom air flow, Australia is investing $271mn in air filters for schools and most recently, the US military is installing newer clean air technology to “keep our Airmen ready to fight”.
So why not in the UK? It’s very disappointing that the Government and the Labour opposition remain silent on this public health issue. Cleaning the air we share is not rocket science! It’s simple, cost effective and, like lots of other western countries, the UK could and should do it now.
So let’s take action ourselves on #CleanAirDay to protect our health and most importantly to protect our children.