Millions suffer from effects of toxic air, our alert system needs updating to protect them

There are an estimated 3.4 million people in the UKLiving with lung conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive and pulmonary disease (COPD), which are made worse by toxic indoor air, is not easy. High levels of air pollution can cause terrifying symptoms such as breathlessness, wheezing, coughing, and other symptoms that can lead to death.

Air pollution doesn’t just affect people already living with lung diseases – it affects us all. Every two minutes a baby is born in the UK, and they are exposed to high levels of air pollution. This could lead to poor health for their entire lives. Dirty air can stunt lung growth in children, create new lung conditions and, ultimately, it’s responsible for an estimated 36,000 premature deaths a year in the UK. It’s a public health emergency.

Given the scale and severity of the threat posed by toxic air, the government’s air pollution alert system should be an integral part of helping people to plan their days when air pollution is high in order to reduce their exposure to harmful pollutants. The Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI) forecasts air pollution levels across the country, and issues alerts when air pollution levels reach a certain threshold, warning people there’s a significant danger to public health and advising them to modify their behaviour if necessary. The alert advises people who are most at risk, including those with heart or lung problems, to decrease their physical exertion, especially outside.

The effectiveness of the alert system is seriously limited because most people don’t know it exists. According to our survey, 62 percent of people with lung diseases were unaware that the DAQI existed. There’s very limited access to accurate data for the general public at the local level, and no disease-specific guidance from government on how people can best protect themselves against the health effects of dirty air. The alerts provide blanket ‘reduce physical exertion outdoors’ message – it’s not particularly helpful or realistic – what if someone has to run to catch their train to work? Exercise is essential for people with lung conditions.


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There’s also a question mark over the thresholds at which the DAQI categorises air pollution levels as ‘low’, ‘medium’ or ‘high’. New research regularly uncovers the dangers that air pollution poses for our health. The World Health Organization dramatically reduced the limit values in its Air Quality Guidelines last year to reflect the fact there is no safe level to breathe in air pollution. This means that the DAQI’s thresholds are becoming increasingly out of date and should really be amended to reflect our increasing understanding of how seriously air pollution can affect health. The government must also create an alert for fine particulate pollution, which is the most hazardous pollutant to our health.

People with lung conditions say that they feel the effects of pollution even when there isn’t an alert. People with lung conditions should not be alerted, but canaries in the coalmine.

At Asthma + Lung UK we’re campaigning for the government to be bolder in its approach to tackling air pollution. But what we’re currently not seeing in the alert system is enough information warning about the health effects of air pollution nor messaging that puts the responsibility on polluters to reduce their contribution to the country’s lethal air. The alerts are more like a stick plaster telling those at highest risk to change their behaviour and reduce exposure.

The impacts of air pollution are devastating. We must take immediate action to protect our health, both now and in the long-term. This means setting higher targets on the pollutants that are most harmful to our health and making sure we adhere to interim guidelines set by the World Health Organization for 2030. It also means developing a better alert system to assist those most at risk in managing their activities during high levels of pollution and to make the public more aware about the dangers posed to them by dirty air.

Come and talk to me in Parliament…

Parliament holds the key for improving the quality of our air and raising awareness about the dangers of pollution. Asthma + Lung UK will be open for one week starting 18 JulyThe Upper Waiting Hall, Westminster will host a discussion about toxic air and its impact on health. Please stop by and chat to me and the rest of the charity’s clean air experts about how we can work together to improve air pollution in every community across the country, including working with trusted sources like charities and healthcare professionals to promote the alert system and keep everyone safe.

For further information or to make an appointment to meet in person email: