Pollution blamed for 25,000 deaths
Local authorities need to do more to protect people from harmful air pollution, health officials have said after new estimates suggest that thousands die every year as a result of poor air quality.
Long-term exposure to air pollution led to around 25,000 deaths in England in 2010, Public Health England (PHE) said.
The highest number of deaths were recorded in the south east of England where 4,034 deaths in people over the age of 25 were attributable to air pollution.
This was followed by the North West where 3,427 deaths were associated with particulate air pollution.
There were 3,389 deaths in London linked to poor air quality.
Other parts of England had between 2,000 and 3,000 deaths attributable to air pollution apart from the north east, where 1,199 deaths were associated with air pollution.
Last week swathes of England and Wales suffered extremely high pollution levels.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) predicted that large areas of the country would suffer the highest levels of pollution.
The dip in the air quality was caused by a combination of dust from the Sahara Desert, emissions from the continent, low south-easterly winds and domestic pollution.
A fresh air mass pushed the pollution away from Britain on Friday.
Health officials said that the latest estimates are for long-term exposure to pollutants, not short-term exposure to poor air quality as seen last week. But they said that short-term exposure can cause a range of adverse effects such as exacerbation of asthma and effects on lung function.
PHE published a list of local authorities and the number of deaths that are attributable to air pollution in each area.
The estimates are calculated using the average annual concentrations of man-made particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter, and the impacts on health.
PHE said that air quality has improved "considerably" in the UK in recent decades due to new cleaner technology and tighter environmental legislation. But it said that local action can be taken to reduce the emissions of these man-made particles and people's exposure to air pollution.
Dr Paul Cosford, PHE's director of health protection and medical director, said: "Policies that encourage a shift from motorised transport to walking and cycling would be expected to reduce total vehicle emissions, including particulate pollution.
"If this could be achieved in towns and cities, then we could expect local improvements in air quality. There would also be health benefits from increased physical activity through walking and cycling.
"Local authorities could also consider other measures to improve air quality, such as implementing low emission strategies as well as the appropriate design of green spaces."
Dr Sotiris Vardoulakis, PHE's head of air pollution and climate change, said: "The report has been produced to inform public health professionals and air quality specialists in local authorities about the likely effects of particle air pollution on public health. The estimates are intended to help local authorities consider air pollution among other public health issues.
"Much outdoor air pollution comes from burning fuels to generate heat and electricity and from vehicles. Measures that significantly reduce particulate air pollution or cut exposure would be regarded as important public health initiatives."
Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates said: "It's outrageous that tens of thousands of people die prematurely in England every year because of polluted air. Ending this national disgrace should be a top priority for politicians.
"Tougher measures are needed to tackle the causes of our dirty air, especially traffic pollution.
"Ministers and local authorities must develop an urgent action plan to introduce cleaner vehicles and encourage the use of alternative forms of transport - people won't be able to breathe easily until they do."
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: "With the high levels of pollution we experienced last week there has been a lot of discussion about the short-term effects it can have on people's health, particularly to those living with a lung condition.
"However, this new report further highlights just how serious exposure to pollution can be to people's health in the long-term - this is something we urgently need to tackle."