UK study looks at long term impact of air pollution on health

A study carried out by three UK Universities has provided further evidence that exposure to air pollution in early life has detrimental long-term health consequences, researchers claim.

The study, which was published in BMJ Open, drew a link between coal consumption in areas of England and Wales in the 1950s and deaths caused by respiratory and cardiovascular disease, as well as certain cancers, over the subsequent six decades.

The study looked at incidences of respiratory disease and other air pollution linked illnesses in areas with high coal consumption in Britain from the 1950s and 1960s onwards

Led by Professor David Phillips from the Medical Research Council’s Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, the University of Southampton worked closely with the University of Portsmouth and the University of Oxford to carry out the research.

The data presented in the study also has implications for the long-term health of the populations of countries that still depend on large amounts of coal for their domestic markets, the researchers claim.

Health

Professor Stephen Holgate, Medical Research Council Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, said: “We have long known that air pollution from the domestic burning of coal throughout the last 250 years has had devastating effects on human health. This is both during severe air pollution episodes during the famous smogs and fogs, but also over the long term with high background exposures, especially effecting the lungs and cardiovascular system.

“With the impending release of the government’s new Air Pollution Plan, these findings emphasise the importance of putting health above any other interests in protecting future generations from the toxic effects of current and unacceptable levels of air pollution in the UK.”

The paper, titled Evaluating the long-term consequences of air pollution in early life: geographical correlations between coal consumption in 1951/1952 and current mortality in England and Wales, centres on data from the former Ministry of Fuel and Power that recorded the quantities of solid fuels burnt annually between May 1951 and May 1952 in 1,145 different locations.

Studies published in the 1950s and 1960s suggested that there were links between the amounts of coal used in domestic fires with both childhood respiratory disease and many major causes of adult deaths.

Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952 (photo: N T Stobbs. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

By the middle of the 20th century, more than 200 million tonnes of coal were being used per year in England and Wales, the researchers have suggested. The Great Smog of London in 1952 killed an estimated 12 000 people and led to the first UK Clean Air Act being passed in 1956 to reduce coal consumption.

It is not known, however, whether these after effects have persisted. As such, this research is the first project to investigate the long term adverse health effects of early life exposure to air pollution across a period of more than 60 years.

Professor Holgate, added: “The Clean Air Act 1956 had a dramatic effect in reducing these avoidable causes of death and chronic illness. What we now have learnt from this study is that pollution exposure of infants and children from King Coal prior to the Clean Air Act is still shortening the lives of people today, more than 60 years later, even when current exposures to particulate pollution were taken into account.

“As well as acute effects, the study emphasises that exposure of pregnant mothers and our children to air pollutants has long term impacts across a person’s lifetime.”

Related Links
Evaluating the long-term consequences of air pollution in early life: geographical correlations between coal consumption in 1951/1952 and current mortality in England and Wales