Blowin’ In the Wind: National Clean Air Day | Breast Cancer UK

Blowin’ In the Wind: National Clean Air Day

Published 15 Jun 2017

“Life is not measured by how many breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away” - Maya Angelou.

That may be true, but we’re going to measure (roughly) the number of breaths we take anyway: a person at rest takes about 16 per minute, so a person who lives to 80 will take about 672,768,000 breaths over their lifetime.

With all that breathing everyone’s doing, you’d have thought that making sure our air was clean would be top priority. Sadly, throughout history and up to the present day our atmosphere has been a bit of a dumping ground.

“In the air tonight”

Air pollution is the contamination of our atmosphere by chemical, physical and biological agents (1). These can be anything from car fumes to desert dust. Exactly what is in the air you are breathing will depend on where you are, the time of year and the weather.

Air pollution is not a new problem in the UK. Factory emissions and domestic coal burning produced sulphur dioxide and soot, which led to the Great Smog in London in 1952 that killed thousands of people (2). The 1956 and 1968 Clean Air Acts helped tackle these pollutants, but nonetheless people now in their 60s and 70s grew up breathing in emissions from leaded petrol and summertime smog.

The sources of air pollution may have changed over recent decades (fewer domestic coal fires and home incinerators, increased traffic and pesticide use) but we are still breathing polluted air.

“Take my breath away”

Air pollution is known to be associated with a range of illnesses. In 2013 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans (i.e. capable of causing cancer) (3). It also classifies various indoor air pollutants, such as tobacco smoke and coal fire emissions as carcinogenic (4). Many of the chemicals present in air pollution have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

A 2010 House of Commons report on air quality stated that: 'poor air quality reduces the life-expectancy of everyone in the UK by an average of 7 to 8 months and up to 50,000 people a year may die prematurely because of it’ (5). Health problems resulting from exposure to air pollution have been estimated to cost individuals, businesses, and our health services over £20 billion every year (6).

In 2016 the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee described air pollution in the UK as a ‘public health emergency’ (7).

“All I need is the air that I breath”

Currently, action to improve outdoor air quality is largely driven by EU legislation, with EU air quality directives setting legal limits on the levels of major air pollutants. Regulating the quality of air indoors is a complex task; whilst there are examples of successful regulation, such as the bans on smoking in public places, that have reduced exposure to second hand tobacco smoke, but there are also examples of building regulations, designed to improve energy efficiency, that have made indoor air pollution worse by reducing ventilation.

“You are the wind beneath my wings”

What can you do to help tackle a problem as big as air pollution? The Clean Air Day website breaks it down:

  • Reduce the amount of air pollution you create
  • Talk and join forces to beat air pollution together
  • Avoid harmful air pollution

You can also read our background briefing on air pollution, that goes into more detail about the sources of air pollution and how it is linked to breast cancer.

Can we clean up our air for present and future generations? The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.


(1) A World Health Organisation’s publication, ‘Air pollution’, describes air pollution as ‘…contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere.’ [accessed 21 February 2017]

(2) Met Office (2015). The Great Smog of 1952. [accessed 16 August 2016]

(3) IARC (2016). Outdoor air pollution volume 109. IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans. (accessed October 26, 2016)

(4) IARC (2012). Personal habits and indoor combustions: Volume 100E. A review of human carcinogens. (accessed October 26, 2016)

(5) House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (2010). Air Quality Fifth Report of Session 2009–10 Volume I.

(6) The Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. (2016). Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution.

(7) House of Commons, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (2016). ‘Air Quality’. April 2016.

Cover image: Maina Kiai

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