Posted on Oct 18, 2013 by Ruth Loftus
You might think that atmospheric pollution was a health hazard that countries in the ‘developed’ West of the globe had put behind them long ago. Not so.
Sure there are major problems in the emerging economies too. Issues such as the irresistible spread of the internal combustion engine or the equally fast growing appetite for electricity (often generated by coal burning power stations), turns the air in great urban sprawls into a murky cloud that stings the eyes, burns the throat and creates a number of other serious health problems. At the turn of the year, Beijing and Shanghai in China along with New Delhi in India were high profile victims. More recently, smog generated by forest burning in Indonesia provoked a state of emergency and strained diplomatic relations with Malaysia.
It is often assumed that these pollution problems are not as much of a concern around Europe but unfortunately, this is not the case. But before looking at an assessment of the ongoing danger that pollution does present, it is worth looking at how far countries like the UK have come in reducing the problem – and hope that similar health risks may be addressed elsewhere around the world.
In the UK, the single incident that changed public opinion and that drove a reforming legislation was the Great Smog of 1952. This had its gravest effect in London whereby certain weather conditions resulted in airborne pollutants (mostly from the burning of coal which was the fuel for home, business and power generation) settling above and throughout the City causing transport chaos and other great distress – even penetrating indoors. Initial assessments suggested that it brought about some 4,000 fatalities and caused less grave medical consequences for around 100,000 people - later investigation suggested that the cumulative deaths may have been as many as 20,000. It was the UK’s worst ever air pollution event and brought about many changes including path breaking legislation – the Clean Air Act of 1956.
However the latest research by the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows that despite progress that has been made across Europe in removing this risk and the health, there are still other continuing risks from air borne pollutants – and other research has suggested that continuing air pollution may have implications for low birth weight and the problems this brings.
The work of the (EEA) confirmed that there has been significant cut in the emissions of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, lead and carbon monoxide and this meant that the ‘ blanket of smog’ syndrome has largely disappeared. However, other forms of atmospheric danger are still present and further concerted action is needed to bring about necessary change.
Investigations have suggested that up to 96% of the urban population of Europe was subject to concentrations of fine particulate matter that exceeded World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines - the major source of this particulate matter is road vehicles. Some 98% of that population lived in locations where ground level ozone concentrations were in excess of the WHO recommended levels.
The EEA also reported that public opinion across the EU remained aware of and anxious about the possible implications of poor environmental conditions and were keen for action to be taken to address the issue at regional, national and supra-national level.
Across the world as a whole, outdoor air pollution is calculated to contribute to more than two-and-a-half million deaths each year with 470,000 people dying as a result of ozone levels and with 2.1 million deaths linked to concentrations of fine particulate matter. More specifically, this pollution has an impact on respiratory and heart disease with the young, the elderly and the infirm at greatest risk.
With regard to this phenomenon, ozone and PM2.5 (particulates with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns – which means they are 30 times thinner than is a human hair) have a detectable impact on health and may even bring about premature mortality, the research concluded. Even in Europe, life expectancy is reduced by almost nine months due to exposure to PM2.5.
A further study has linked atmospheric pollution with low birth weight. Babies with low birth-weight are at greater risk of a range health problems than those with higher birth-weights. These include wheezing and asthma in childhood, and then poorer lung function in adults - though this requires more detailed investigation .The research analysed data from over 74,000 births between 1994 and 2011 in twelve different European countries and found that aside from active and passive smoking, atmospheric pollution exposure appeared to be a major risk factor for low birth-weight.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists regarded the research as being helpful in presenting more evidence on the health consequences of air pollution but also noted that some level of air pollution may be unavoidable in modern life and that the risk still remains quite low. They also stressed that things such as smoking, high blood pressure or high alcohol consumption could result in an even greater risk of a low birth weight baby.