Doctors call for action on air pollution

Doctors are marking Clean Air Day today (20 June) by calling on the Scottish Government to act to reduce preventable ill health, caused by air pollution in Scotland.

The World Health Organization has recently recommended that target pollution levels should be much lower than those we have in Scotland. And, Health Protection Scotland estimates that approximately 1700 annual premature deaths in Scotland can be attributed to air pollution. Many more people are harmed.

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE), Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) in Scotland and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in Scotland want the Scottish Government to focus on reducing yearly average levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a toxic gas produced mainly from transport, from 40µg/m³ to 20 µg/m³, over the next five years with the ultimate aim of achieving the WHO-recommended 10µg/m³ by 2035.

They also want the Scottish Government to focus on reducing peak levels of traffic-related air pollution, that occur during busy periods such as rush hour. Rush hour is often when a large number of our population, including children on school journeys, are normally more exposed to polluted air.

Climate change poses a threat to the health and wellbeing of children and young people. Air pollution is linked to premature birth, smaller infants with decreased brain growth, children’s hospital admissions with lung and skin disease, and significant adult ill health such as heart attacks, dementia, stroke and lung disease.

Commenting, Professor Jill Belch, Co-Chair of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh's short-life working group on air pollution, said:

“The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh has consistently called for urgent action on air pollution. Clean Air Day is the perfect time to remind political leaders that there’s much more to do in reducing the preventable ill health caused by air pollution.

“We recently proposed to the Scottish Government a pilot scheme to place air quality monitors near a number of urban primary schools in our largest cities. By doing so, we could collect better data on air pollution “hotspots” near schools, which could make Scotland better informed to create policy to reduce child ill health linked to air pollution.

Professor Andrew Elder, President, The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh said:

Prevention of illness and disease must be central to the Scottish Government’s plans for public health. Air pollution must be a continued focus of preventative efforts – particularly to avoid exposing children to harmful air in the early stages of their lives. We ask all politicians in Scotland to take this matter seriously – and meet the levels recommended by the World Health Organization.

Dr Mairi Stark, Scottish Officer, The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said:

As paediatricians, we see first-hand the detrimental impact air pollution has on children. Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution, as they breathe faster and inhale more airborne toxicants in proportion to their weight, than adults exposed to the same air pollution. This can have a lasting impact on their health and development. Studies show that children and young people in deprived communities also bear the greatest burden of air pollution, exacerbating already rampant health inequalities.

The Scottish Government must act to address this and prevent further widening of child health disparities. Urgent action is required to meet WHO recommendations and ensure children in Scotland grow up in a healthy environment. RCPCH calls on the Scottish Government to make child health a focal point in all climate change policies and prioritise reducing air pollution.

Dr Munro Stewart, Joint clinician representative for Climate and Sustainability at RCGP Scotland:

There is much to be gained from action on improving air quality. Air pollution impacts all the organs in our body and contributes to Scotland’s poor record of health inequity. The Scottish Government should take action and commit to this yearly average target for nitrogen dioxide, alongside a holistic approach to this multi-factorial challenge, as this will deliver healthier communities and reduce demand on an overstretched NHS.”

Notes to editor

  1. See further information about air quality in Scotland
  2. See further information about the WHO Air quality guidelines
  3. RCPE helps qualified doctors to pursue their careers in specialist (internal) medicine through medical examinations, education and training. We also provide resources and information to support and facilitate professional development for physicians throughout their careers. With over 14000 Fellows and Members around the world, the College helps to develop standards of medical care and training.
  4. RCGP Scotland develops initiatives on behalf of members in Scotland, comments on how UK initiatives and developments will affect Scottish general practice, ensures that RCGP Scotland continues to be a leading player in primary care development within Scotland and listens to and works with patients, external agencies and members to help deliver the highest standards of general medical practice and excellence in patient care.
  5. RCPCH Scotland manages external relations with stakeholders and policymakers including the Scottish Government and organisations with an interest in child health. The RCPCH Scotland team is here to make sure members in Scotland have a voice.