Health bodies call for biggest changes to air quality legislation in over 60 years

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) – the body of UK health professionals advocating for action on climate change to protect public health – is calling on government to implement the biggest shake up in air quality legislation since the middle of the last century.

Air pollution contributes to an estimated 40,000 deaths each year in the UK and costs the economy an estimated £22 billion.

UKHACC wants legally enforced air standards, governed by an independent statutory body to ensure consistently cleaner air across the UK, and the creation of an advisory group to advise government on air pollution, in much the same way as the Committee on Climate Change does on climate change issues.

Representing Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association, Faculty for Public Health, BMJ and The Lancet, they are calling for the implementation of a new Clean Air Act as one recommendation in its new All-Member Report into air pollution launched today (29 October).

With children being among the most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, the report coincides with the World Health Organisation highlighting the global impact of air pollution on children. As well as causing and aggravating respiratory conditions such as asthma, emphysema and bronchiectasis, air pollution can actually cause developmental problems of the lungs of infants, making them more vulnerable to these conditions in adulthood. Other effects include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer, stroke and dementia.

According to UKHACC, a new Clean Air Act – whether part of a new environment act or a standalone piece of legislation – needs to reduce air concentration levels to as close to zero as possible in the shortest amount of time.

The first time a Clean Air Act was implemented was in 1956, because the government could not ignore the Great London Smog, caused mainly by the use of coal.

Today, the air pollution is visible and is causing another major public health crisis. This crisis results in 40,000 deaths each year and is caused largely by the use road vehicles.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change said:

“The UK’s dirty air crisis has gone on too long, inflicting a large cost on our health, with children particularly vulnerable. To date, the government’s response has been too slow and lacked ambition.

“Today, UK health professionals have set out a policy agenda that is sufficient to deal with the scale of the problem, ensuring health is protected and air pollution levels are rapidly reduced, with support being given to those on the front line, including councils and the NHS.

“Crucially, the actions needed to reduce air pollution are also those that improve our health anyway, including through helping more people cycle and walk instead of using cars.”

Air pollution and climate change are intrinsically linked. Both are made worse by the burning of fossil fuels, which increases the emissions which cause global warming.

Pollution from road transport is a major contributor to our toxic air, accounting for nearly half of the total environmental nitrogen dioxide, and for particulate matter (PM) created when diesel and petrol burn as fuel, and from the friction of created by tyres, brakes and road surfaces when vehicles travel.

Focusing on transport as a major contributor to air pollution, other recommendations in the report include bringing forward the ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2040 to 2030, increased investment in active transport to at least £10 per person each year, the expansion of Clean Air Zones in towns and cities, and the creation of an Active Travel Scheme that would provide financial incentives to households and businesses to towards more sustainable forms of travel.

Professor Jonathan Grigg, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said:

“Air pollution is an invisible killer in adults, and in children its invisible toxins get into their bodies through the lungs, stunting lung growth, causing asthma, and adversely influencing other organs. More than 4.5m children living in the UK are affected by toxic levels of air pollution and it is a disgrace that, in 2018, parents and guardians have to worry about their children’s exposure when playing outside or walking to school.

“Everybody has a role to play when it comes to protecting children from air pollution and the recommendations within this report provide a clear framework for this. In particular, the Government, employers and schools must encourage and facilitate better use of public transport and active travel options like walking, scooting and cycling to school. Cycle networks must be expanded and spaces away from traffic developed so children and their parents can choose active travel over their car without risking increased exposure to pollution to their children.”

The British Medical Association’s Board of Science Chair, Professor Dame Parveen Kumar, said:

“This is an important call to action for the government who must work immediately to tackle what has now become a very serious risk to public health.

“There is no time to lose to improve air quality as the scale of the problem is such that it requires a significant legislative overhaul if we are to see real lasting changes.

“As well as implementing effective intervention strategies, targeted investment is required to reduce these lethal levels of air pollution as this poses a significant risk to public health.

“This is a mammoth task but not an impossible one. We have a responsibility to make our air safe and our environment inhabitable, not only for now but for future generations. With collective effort and full government backing, I am confident we will begin to see enormous benefits.”

Rose Gallagher, Professional Lead for Sustainability at the Royal College of Nursing, said:

“The UK should be leading the way in tackling climate change and the damaging effects of air pollution, but too little has been done to reduce emissions and protect our country’s health.

“Nursing staff see first-hand patients suffering from exposure to air pollution, often in urgent situations from aggravated asthma in children to exacerbation of long term respiratory conditions in adults.

“UKHACC has made it clear the steps needed to raise air quality standards and to combat climate change.

“We need greater engagement with the health and care workforce, to support them to choose active travel where possible. Employers must be supported financially to make the NHS more sustainable.

“Clean air benefits everyone and will in the long term reduce the burden on the NHS. For the future health of the UK, the Government’s duty to reduce air pollution must be enshrined in law.”


Notes to Editors

The key recommendations are:

  • The government’s duty to reduce air pollution and protect population health should be enshrined in law through a new Clean Air Act, with legally-enforced air quality standards that at least meet WHO recommended limits, a new independent statutory body to enforce these limits, a new independent advisory body modelled along the lines of the Committee on Climate Change, and powers and resources for local authorities and national agencies to protect health when air pollution levels are high.
  • A UK-wide framework for the expansion of Clean Air Zones in towns and cities is needed, providing local authorities with the powers to charge vehicles and the funding to ensure effective implementation.
  • The ban on the sale of new conventional diesel and petrol cars and vans should be brought forward to 2030.
  • An ‘Active Travel Scheme’ should be created to support businesses and households in adopting shared and active transport options. The Scheme should provide, for example, discounts on car club schemes, access to bikes and support to engage in physical activity, as opposed to grants to buy new vehicles, as has typified diesel scrappage policies of the past.
  • By 2020, the government should increase investment in active transport to at least £10 per capita.
  • An ‘NHS Clean Air Fund’ should be created to support the adoption of low and zero tailpipe emission vehicles for the NHS and to support in the rollout of electric vehicles charging infrastructure, funded through fines and/ or contributions when industries are found to be breaching emissions regulations, on the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

See report for the full recommendations


The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change comprises the UK’s leading health institutions, representing over 600,000 doctors, nurses and scientists.

Members include Medical and Nursing Royal Colleges, the Faculty of Public health, Faculty of Reproductive & Sexual Health, Royal Society of Medicine, British Medical Association, British Medical Journal and The Lancet.

The Alliance advocates and advises on responses to climate change that protect and promote public health, providing the UK expert voice on the health impact of climate change. UKHACC members are:

  • Royal College of Physicians
  • Royal College of General Practitioners
  • Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists
  • Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • Royal College of Nursing
  • Royal College of Emergency Medicine
  • Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health
  • Royal College of Anaesthetists
  • Royal College of Surgeons
  • Faculty of Public health
  • Faculty of Reproductive & Sexual Health
  • Royal Society of Medicine
  • British Medical Association
  • British Medical Journal
  • The Lancet
  • Climate & Health Council

For more information, please contact:

Laurence Bourton

Communications Manager