Scientists confirm for the first time that air pollution causes heart disease and stroke

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By Tom Bawden

Air pollution is responsible for five per cent of all deaths in the UK, scientists say

Air pollution poses as big a threat to our health as obesity and needs to be taken just as seriously, the British Heart Foundation claims today. Speaking after scientists categorically confirmed for the first time that air pollution causes heart attacks and strokes, the foundation called on the government to introduce an air pollution limit that is below the current average level in the UK – and to make it legally binding to ensure the necessary action is taken to meet the target. “Air pollution is up there with obesity. It’s responsible for five per cent of deaths across the UK. That is alarming,” said Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Hearth foundation, told i.

Researchers had previously observed that people living in the most polluted areas tended to get more heart attacks and strokes. But they hadn’t proved whether the air pollution was responsible or whether there was another, unknown, cause. Now scientists have confirmed beyond doubt that the more particulates there are from vehicle exhausts, industry and road dust in the air the greater the risk of cardiovascular problems. “It is now beyond doubt that there is a link and it brings into sharp perspective the impact of pollution on public health,” said Professor Frank Kelly, of King’s College London. He led the research by COMEAP, the government’s official advisor on the health effects of air pollution. WHO figures The findings came just a day after the World Health Organisation warned that average air pollution across the UK breached the level it regards as safe – with many cities experiencing significantly higher levels.

“We need a commitment to WHO guideline limits for particulate air pollution in UK law to drive action to better protect the nation’s health,” said Mr Gillespie, of the BHF. These tiny particulates make up the bulk of UK air pollution and are less than one-thirtieth of the width of a human hair.

“We need a commitment to WHO guideline limits for particulate air pollution in UK law to drive action to better protect the nation’s health,” said Mr Gillespie, of the BHF. These tiny particulates make up the bulk of UK air pollution and are less than one-thirtieth of the width of a human hair.

The damage they cause

The air quality in the average part of the UK is unsafe, new report finds Air pollution concerns after UK ‘wins fight to weaken emissions rules’ Air pollution linked to mouth cancer Car ban on school streets will cut pollution and reduce deaths ‘Toxic’ school run leaves children exposed to dangerous air pollution Government plan to curb wood-burning stoves to cut harmful emissions Next They reach deep into the lungs and bloodstream, contributing to 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK, with cardiovascular disease the major contributor, according to a previous estimate by COMEAP, made before its researchers had scientifically proved the link.

An alliance of 16 organisations including several Medical and Nursing Royal Colleges, Faculties of Health, the British Medical Association, the British Medical Journal, and the Lancet backed the call for the government to introduce new pollution limits.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton, director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, said the government must “implement new clean air legislation that enshrines World Health Organisation limits on air pollution into law, and create a new body that holds it to account after the UK leaves the EU.”

Government response

A government spokesman said: “While air quality in the UK has improved significantly since 2010, we understand the risk it continues to pose to human health and realise more needs to be done.

“For that reason, we have introduced a £3.5bn plan to reduce harmful emissions and have consulted on ambitious Clean Air Strategy which has been welcomed by the WHO.

“The BHF was one of a large number of organisations to respond to the consultation earlier this year, and we are currently considering responses ahead of the publication of the Clean Air Strategy later this year.”


The new report establishes that air pollution increases blood pressure, makes blood more likely to clot and increases the build-up of fatty materials inside the arteries, reducing the space through which the blood can flow – a condition known as atherosclerosis.

Furthermore, it can cause irregular heartbeats – or arrhythmias – as well as inflammation of the cardiovascular system, or systematic inflammation, the report finds.

“Before, we could show an association between people living in areas of high pollution and more people dying from heart disease in those areas. But we couldn’t say that one is responsible for the other. Now, we understand that when you’re exposed to air pollution you get changes to blood vessels that are the same as what we see in someone whose had a heart attack,” said Prof Kelly.


The average level of air pollution in the UK is 10.5 micrograms of particulates – known as PM2.5s – per cubic metre, with many cities much higher and rural areas lower.

The World Health Organisation guidelines suggest anything above 10 micrograms per cubic metre is dangerous for our health – although it is reviewing this target and expected to bring it down. The UK is by no means alone in breaching the limit, however. The particulate concentration is 65.2 per cubic metre in India and 49.2 in China. France and Germany are also higher than the UK – at 11.6 and 11.7 respectively, while Finland and Ireland are lower, at 5.9 and 8.3, according to the WHO.

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