Research shows pollution — particularly from traffic — is linked to childhood illness, dementia and even early death. So we’re calling on you to cut down your car use. Are you with us?
Did you know that around 40,000 people die every year because of health problems caused by exposure to air pollution?
Evidence increasingly points to the fact that illnesses are triggered, or worsened, by contaminates in the air we breathe. And the problems are likely to worsen as increasing urbanisation, climate change and population growth mean air pollution is on the rise.
Those at greatest risk are children, whose lungs and immune systems are still developing. Adults with respiratory disease or heart problems, and the elderly, are also vulnerable. So what is air pollution really doing to us? And what can we do about it?
There is growing evidence that people living in areas polluted by traffic and industry are more likely to develop dementia. One theory is that tiny particles and chemicals in polluted air, absorbed into the body through the lungs, cause damage or inflammation in the brain.
Studies suggest children exposed to air pollution at an early age are more likely to develop asthma and lung infections, which can be fatal.
Pollution also worsens the condition. Children are most at risk. A recent report found primary and pre-school age children were exposed to up to 30 per cent more pollution than adults, simply because they were closer to the fumes from car exhausts.
Charity Asthma UK advises affected children to avoid walking along congested roads, and to carry their reliever inhaler with them at all times.
Heart attacks and strokes
Breathing polluted air over many years can cause arteries to become furred up or narrowed, which can lead to heart attacks or strokes.
Spikes in pollution can also trigger heart problems in the short term. People are also more likely to suffer heart attacks in the hours after they have been exposed to large amounts of traffic fumes.
Research increasingly suggests that problems can begin in the womb. According to one study, tiny soot particles were found inside the placentas of women who gave birth to healthy babies. The tiny bits of carbon — typically created by burning fossil fuels — had been breathed in by the pregnant mothers and travelled through their bodies into their placentas.
Scientists don’t yet know if the particles can reach babies in the womb, but previous research has found links between pregnant women exposed to air pollution and problems such as premature births, low birth weights, unexpected deaths of their babies and lung problems in childhood.
Pollution can even cause problems before a child is conceived. Doctors suspect pollution is having an effect on sperm quality — the number of sperm cells which are the correct size and shape to fertilise an egg.
Pollution causes a ‘huge’ reduction in intelligence, according to new research. It found that high pollution levels led to significant drops in test scores in language and arithmetic, with the average impact equivalent to having lost a year of education.
What can we do about it?
If you live in a busy city, avoiding air pollution can be tricky, but try to avoid walking or exercising outside at peak traffic times. Introducing car-free days will reduce deadly emissions from vehicles and encourage greater levels of cycling and walking.
Darren Shirley, Chief Executive from Campaign for Better Transport, says: ‘A weekly or monthly car-free day could have real benefits for you, your family and the wider community.
‘Air pollution is a serious problem in our towns and cities, with thousands of deaths a year being attributed to it.
‘Instead of the car, you could take public transport, walk or cycle, which could help you improve your fitness, whilst also reducing congestion and improving air quality in your local area.’
5 benefits of cutting car use
Improve your health — walking is a great way to exercise more.
Improve air quality — reducing your car use, especially on the school run, could make a big difference to everyone’s health.
Reduce your carbon footprint — transport is one of the main sources of carbon emissions. Leaving your car behind could significantly reduce your personal carbon usage.
Ease traffic congestion — take the bus and leave roads clear.
Help your local economy — shoppers on foot spend up to six times more locally than those who drive.