Devastating long-term impact on health of living near busy main roads – new report

Traffic queuesBrussels, 25/11/2019. A new report from King’s College London details the devastating long-term impact on health from living near busy main roads in British cities. For the first time, a coalition of health and environment groups has quantified the risks to human health by taking examples from nine British cities: London, Birmingham, Bristol, Derby, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and Southampton.

The findings are being released by a coalition of 15 health and environment NGOs, including ClientEarth, the British Lung Foundation and the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which represents 650,000 health professionals in the NHS.

They show that living within 50 metres of a major road in the UK can increase your risk of developing lung cancer by up to 10%. The data also shows an increased risk of cardiac arrest, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and bronchitis, as well as reduced lung function in children.

The levels of roadside air pollution recorded can stunt lung growth in children by approximately 14% in Oxford, 13% in London, 8% in Birmingham, 5% in Bristol, 5% in Liverpool, 3% in Nottingham, and 4% in Southampton. One third (33%) of Londoners – around 3 million people – are estimated to live near a busy road.

This is the first time that such a wide range of health conditions and cities have been analysed in one report, with the research comparing 13 different health outcomes including heart disease, lung cancer, strokes and bronchitis across 13 cities in the UK. Previous research has tended to concentrate on deaths or hospital admissions, but this report also includes symptoms that affect a larger number of people such as chest infections (‘acute bronchitis’) and reduced lung function in children.

How would reduced roadside air pollution help?

Living near a busyroad can trigger bronchitic symptoms amongst children with asthma. If pollution were to be reduced by one-fifth, there would be 3,865 fewer cases of children with bronchitis symptoms every year in London, 328 in Birmingham, 94 in Bristol, 85 in Liverpool, 85 in Manchester, 134 in Nottingham, 38 in Oxford and 69 in Southampton.

Roadside air pollution and children's lung function

Andrea Lee, clean air campaigns and policy manager at ClientEarth, says, “Toxic air puts an unfair burden on people’s lives. The good news is that solutions are available. The UK’s first clean air zone in London is already having an impact. But much more needs to be done to help people across the country move to cleaner forms of transport.”

She continues, “To better protect people’s health, the next UK Government needs to raise the bar by making a binding commitment to meet stricter WHO guidelines by 2030. If politicians were not already convinced by the abundant evidence that air pollution seriously harms our health, could this new research be the tipping point?”

The call is being echoed by parents and leading health professionals who are warning of the “unsustainable burden on the NHS” of air pollution. A group of parents from across the country affected by air pollution, the Clean Air Parents’ Network, are writing to general election candidates
asking them to commit to urgent action to protect children’s health as well as meeting WHO targets and setting up Clean Air Zones in the most polluted towns and cities.

Lucy Harbor, founder of Clean Air 4 Schools, who lives in north London, says, “These findings are deeply worrying, as me and my family live by the A10 and my kids go to a school on a busy main road. Sadly, this report confirms many of my worst fears – that where we live and go to school could seriously be affecting our health. We are these statistics – one of my children was hospitalised with pneumonia and has had asthma. That my children’s lung growth could be stunted by 12.5% makes me seriously question whether enough is being done to urgently bring pollution levels
down on main roads in London.”

Now the time to act

With an important general election coming up on 12 December 2019, the group is calling for all UK political parties to adopt a legally-binding target to meet WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines for particulate-matter pollution by 2030, and to take steps immediately to reduce illegal air pollution across the UK.

Roadside air pollution and stroke risk
The existing UK legal limits for particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) are still more than double the WHO guideline levels. To date, no political party has explicitly committed to meet the guidelines by 2030. The fear is that without a clear deadline and timetable, many more people will die and face debilitating health conditions.

The group are also urging the introduction of a national network of Clean Air Zones across the UK. London’s own clean air zone, the ULEZ or Ultra Low Emissions Zone, has already had a noticeable impact on reducing air pollution, with levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) falling by 29%.

The report claims that cutting air pollution by one-fifth would reduce the number of lung cancer cases by 7.6% in London, 6.4% in Birmingham, 5.9% in Bristol, 5.3% in Liverpool, 5.6% in Manchester, 6.7% in Nottingham, 6% in Oxford and 5.9% in Southampton.

Dr Sandy Robertson, Emergency Medicine Registrar at Homerton University Hospital London and Council Member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, says, “It’s clear to see the effect of air pollution on the demand for emergency care in A&E waiting rooms. This study from Kings College quantifies the staggering scale of that link.”

“Children in London are 4.2% more likely to be hospitalised by asthma on days of high pollution – resulting in an extra 74 child admissions,” he says. “Air pollution is not only an individual tragedy for those whose health suffers, it is also an unsustainable burden on our NHS. But we can make a difference. In the lead up to this general election, it’s essential that all political parties commit to supporting a legally binding target to meet WHO air quality limits by 2030.”

© Philip Hunt, 2019.

Note. The research also gathered data from several major cities in Poland. However for the purpose of this article and its timing against the background of an oncoming UK general election, I have focused on the British angle. Data from Poland can be accessed in the full report.

More information

Download the full report:

For more information, contact:
Ms Valentina Lotti, Environmental Research Group Room 4.189, King’s College London, 150 Stamford Street, London SE1 9NH.
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7848 4044 Email:

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