BLOG: Why we need a Clean Air Act now | Breast Cancer UK

BLOG: Why we need a Clean Air Act now

Published 20 Jun 2019

It’s Clean Air Day today which provides a unique opportunity to renew calls on the Government to introduce a new Clean Air Act to tackle the primary sources of air pollution, build on existing air quality legislation and safeguard EU legal protections post-Brexit.  

There is growing scientific evidence linking air pollutants to Breast Cancer and Breast Cancer UK has long advocated for the introduction of a new Clean Air Act. We are far from alone in making this call, as leading health bodiesenvironmental NGOs and most recently The Times have declared their support for such an Act to enshrine people’s right to breathe clean air.  

It’s been over 60 years since the UK first led the world in tackling air pollution by introducing the landmark 1956 Clean Air Act, in response to the Great London Smog. This legislation was further strengthened by the Clean Air Acts of 1968 and 1993 to target other sources of air pollution. Unfortunately, despite this auspicious start, the UN has condemned Britain’s lack of subsequent follow-up action. Indeed, since 2015, the UK has been taken to court three times for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution or reflect its legal obligations within its air quality plans.   

Air pollution is the UK’s leading environmental health risk and is thought to be a risk factor for breast cancer. Across public health, long term exposure to this invisible killer is known to reduce life expectancy and has been linked to a range of other illnesses and conditions, including lung cancer, bladder cancer, asthma, heart disease and dementia. 

The scale of our air pollution crisis is unprecedented and has had a devastating impact on public health as poor air quality contributes to over 40,000 early deaths every year, costing the UK economy over £20 billion annually. Public Health England forecasts that without any change in the law, air pollutants will cause a further 2.4 million cases of disease by 2035. That’s why it’s time for a radical shake-up of air quality legislation through the introduction of an ambitious and far-reaching Clean Air Act, fit for the 21st Century. 

There is growing evidence to suggest that high levels of air pollution may be associated with an increased incidence of breast cancer. Common air pollutants include particulate matter, which may contain carcinogens (cancer causing chemicals) e.g. polyaromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene; or endocrine disrupting chemicals that mimic the natural hormone oestrogen, which are known to increase breast cancer risk. Other air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide and other nitrogen oxides, are also potential carcinogens.  

What are the main sources of air pollution and who is most at risk? Air pollutants are emitted primarily from a range of man-made sources. Road traffic fumes, industrial emissions and use of pesticides in agriculture are well-known as the key outdoor contributors to the adverse quality of our air. Crucially, whilst we are all exposed to air pollution, certain sectors of society face even greater risks. These include people living in urban areas who are exposed to high levels of traffic fumes, school children who face a toxic school run every day, and those living in deprived inner-city communities who have no choice but to breathe dirty air. 

Also, let’s not forget a health hazard that we are largely oblivious to - indoor air pollution. Whether at home or in the workplace, the extent of people’s exposure is affected by how our buildings are heated, ventilated, how people cook and their choice of lifestyle. This includes pollutants emitted from fires, gas cookers, wood-burning stoves and cigarette smoking. Chemicals released into the air by household products, such as endocrine disruptors in cleaning products or flame retardants in upholstery are also major culprits.  

So, what should form part of a new Clean Air Act, fit for the 21st Century? Breast Cancer UK believes that a new Clean Air Act should improve on existing legislation, to ensure that we enshrine the right to breathe clean air into law; tackle the sources of modern air pollution, such as emissions from diesel engines, and safeguard legal protections for Clean Air provided by existing EU legislation.  

In particular, we believe this new Act should introduce legal limits for all air pollutants, in line with WHO guidelines. The Act should also expand the powers of local authorities to take action, supporting the development of clean air zones, and introducing fiscal incentives to phase out the most polluting vehicles. The transition towards low emission vehicles, sustainable transport and active travel schemes should also be encouraged. Finally, the Act should consolidate and build upon existing EU legislation to ensure that Brexit does not lead to the watering down of air quality standards. 

What action has the Government taken so far? In January, the Government released its Clean Air Strategy which was a welcome step forward. The plan contained measures to reduce exposure to particulate matter, legislate to ban the most polluting fuels and regulate to reduce ammonia emissions. However, on balance, the strategy was a missed opportunity, as it failed to provide the legally binding targets, accountabilities and ambitious timelines necessary to reflect the urgency of our toxic air crisis. If the Government is serious about protecting public health, it must recognise the need for radical action to shake-up current air quality legislation now.  

Let’s use Clean Air Day as our opportunity to bring about the action needed to end the scourge of modern air pollution! 

For more information on the links between breast cancer and air pollution and tips on how to #reduceyourrisk please view our background briefing or Public Health England’s guidance on air pollution. 

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