One baby born breathing toxic air every two minutes in the UK

Every two minutes in the UK a baby is born in an area with dangerously polluted air which could put them at risk of developing serious health conditions such as asthma,1 according to new analysis by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation released today ahead of next week’s UN Climate Change conference (COP26).

Clear the air: Improving air quality to protect future generations and level up our communities- a new report from Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, and supported by Impact on Urban Health, reveals that:

More than 250,000 children in the UK in 2019 were born in areas where levels of toxic pollutant PM2.5 exceeded World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2005 recommendations. These recommendations have since become stricter, meaning that from September this year even more babies – an estimated 600,000 - are being exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution.

  • Nearly a third (29%) of hospitals in England are located in polluted areas (above the 2005 WHO guideline). This includes 71 maternity units where an estimated 183,979 babies are born each year – almost 3 in 10 of all newborns (29%) 2.
  • At local authority level, Newham Council in London topped the charts as having the worst levels of air pollution followed by the City of London and Waltham Forest councils.3
  • Birmingham, which has the highest rates of birth in the country, is the second most polluted city after London.
  • But it isn’t just large cities affected - leafy St Albans and Windsor and Eton also have dangerously high levels air pollution, with more than 1,500 babies being exposed in each area.

With strong evidence revealing that air pollution can damage every organ in the body including the lungs by stunting their growth, putting children at risk of developing asthma and causing existing lung conditions to worsen,4 Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation are exposing the ‘national shame’ of air pollution and calling for the UK Government to tackle traffic fumes, the biggest cause of air pollution.5

Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution because their lungs are still developing and they breathe faster than adults.6 Previous research from Asthma UK found that an estimated half a million children in the UK with asthma find their symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and gasping for breath are triggered by air pollution.7

Air pollution can also damage the lungs and brains of babies while they are still in the womb8 and emerging evidence shows pregnant women who breathe toxic air are more likely to give birth to premature babies and those with a low birth weight. 9

Toxic air is also estimated to cause 36,000 premature deaths in the UK every year.10

Groups including pregnant women, infants, children, older people and those living with lung conditions are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.11

Low income groups are disproportionately affected by air pollution, and often contribute least to the problem as they are less likely to own a car or drive long distances.12 Additionally, this new analysis found pollution levels around maternity units are highest in the most deprived areas.13

With the UN Climate Conference (COP26) next week shining a spotlight on the need to tackle climate change, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation want to highlight that improving air quality will help the environment and protect people’s health.

The charities are calling for the UK Government to put improving air quality at the heart of its levelling up agenda, ensuring people can access clean air regardless of where they are born or where they live.

UK Governments need to bring in bolder clean air laws with targets that will be met by 2030 and provide sufficient funding for better and more effective public transport and cycling to encourage people to move away from using their cars. Local councils also have a part to play and should expand clean air zones which charge the most polluting vehicles to maximise the benefits for people’s health. 

Julia Kovaliova, 37 is a full-time finance manager from Manchester, which has some of the most polluted roads in the country and one of the worst rates of childhood asthma hospital admission in the country14. She has three children, Maksim, 11, who has pollution-induced asthma, Mark, five, and one-year-old Maya. She is terrified Mark and Maya will get asthma like their brother.

“Maksim was six when he first had an asthma attack and it seemed to come out of nowhere. He'd had a cough and a bit of a cold and one minute he was running around and the next he was complaining he couldn't catch his breath. I had to rush him to hospital and he was diagnosed with asthma. We live in an area which was supposed to be family-friendly, yet it is a near a busy main road where traffic is constantly whizzing by and there is not much green space. Maksim’s asthma is always worse when the roads are busy and I am convinced it is triggered by air pollution. When we are away from home, such as on holiday or visiting family in Lithuania where there is much less traffic, his breathing problems miraculously disappear.

“It is terrifying that air pollution can make children so ill and I worry that Maksim’s asthma will get steadily worse. I am really concerned that Maya will develop asthma like her brother – she was breathing in dirty air while she was in the womb and now is breathing in toxic air as a small, innocent baby. But we can’t afford to move somewhere less polluted. I am campaigning to stamp out air pollution, and with a group of other parents, I stopped the council building a car park near my son’s school but it is time now for the Government to step up and really make a difference.”

Sarah Woolnough, Chief Executive of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “It is a national shame that a quarter of a million babies are born breathing toxic air every year. How can it be acceptable that the first breath a baby takes could be so dirty it could seriously affect their long-term health? Every child deserves the best start in life and our Government needs to act now to cut air pollution levels and do their duty to protect future generations from this invisible threat.

“The UK Government must blaze a trail, not just at COP26 but beyond, to bring in bold new clean air laws and set ambitious targets to clean up the air by 2030. If people are encouraged to swap their car for cleaner modes of transport and Government invests in more cycle routes, more frequent bus routes and if local councils expand clean air zones, there is hope that we can tackle air pollution and all enjoy cleaner air. But we can’t press for change alone. We need people to share their stories of how air pollution affects them and support our campaign to put pressure on the Government to urgently tackle air pollution.”

Andy Ratcliffe, Executive Director of Programmes at Impact on Urban Health, said: “Where a baby happens to be born determines whether, from its very first breath, it will be exposed to toxic levels of poisonous air. This new report shows that pollution levels around maternity units are highest in areas of social deprivation. This is an unacceptable example of inequality in action.

COP26 is a crucial moment for the Government’s levelling up agenda. Do we want to be a society where the burden of poisonous air is disproportionately borne by those whose health is most susceptible - children, older people, people with heart and lung conditions and those in lower income communities? Or do we want to make sure every parent can be confident their baby has equal access to safe air and a healthy life, right from the very first breath?”

Share your story about how air pollution affects you and help us demand change at www.ClearTheAir.org.uk

-Ends-

Notes to Editors:    For more information or for interview requests, please contact the press team on 0207 786 4949; 07976 227 076 or mediaoffice@auk-blf.org.uk.  

Meet us at COP26 – Level 1, Green Zone,  from Monday 1st – Friday 12th November 2021,

Join us under the ‘RespiraTREE’ on Level 1 of the Green Zone (at the top of the escalator), where for two weeks, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation supported by Impact On Urban Health, will be sharing the stories of the people whose lives are most affected by air pollution, in order to demand change from UK leaders. To meet with our storytellers or a member of the Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation team, email jhowlett@auk-blf.org.uk; 07976 227 076.

About Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation:

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation merged on the 1 January 2020.   Asthma UK’s mission is to stop asthma attacks and, ultimately, cure asthma. We do this by funding world leading research, campaigning for improved care and supporting people to reduce their risk of a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. We are entirely funded by voluntary donations. For further information, please visit: asthma.org.uk. 

The British Lung Foundation offers hope, help and a voice to the 1 in 5 people in the UK affected by lung disease. We provide support and information to improve the everyday lives of people with lung disease. We are also campaigning for better diagnosis, treatment and prevention for now and the future. For further information, please visit blf.org.uk.  

Last year, the charity’s helpline has helped more than 30,000 people with asthma with advice, support and information during the pandemic and more than 7 million people have accessed its health advice via the website.  

About Impact on Urban Health:

The places that we grow up, live and work impact how healthy we are. Urban areas, like inner-city London, have some of the most extreme health outcomes. Alongside their vibrancy and diversity sit stark health inequalities.

At Impact on Urban Health, we want to change this. We believe we can remove obstacles to good health by making urban areas healthier places for everyone to live.

The London Boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark are our home. They are some of the most diverse areas in the world. It is here that we invest, test and build our understanding of how cities can be shaped to support better health. We’re focused on a few complex health issues that disproportionately affect people living in cities, and we work with local, national and international organisations, groups and individuals to tackle these.

Our place is like so many others. So we share our insight, evidence and practical learning to improve health in cities around the world.

Impact on Urban Health is part of Guy’s & St Thomas’ Foundation.

Our 10-year Health Effects of Air Pollution programme explores how people’s health is affected by poor air quality, and test solutions to reduce this harmful impact.

We want to reduce the harmful effects of air pollution in both indoor and outdoor spaces on those most susceptible: children, older people and people with heart and lung conditions.

We are working with a range of organisations to test solutions in Southwark and Lambeth, two boroughs in the heart of London, where Impact on Urban Health is based. To do this, we are working with local government, industry and the communities are that most impacted by air pollution, ensuring any interventions and solutions work for them.

References:

  1. Philippa Borrowman, Rob Day and Harriet Edwards, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation (AUK-BLF) (2021) Clear the air: Improving air quality to protect future generations and level up our communitiesAvailable at: www.ClearTheAir.org.uk

To calculate the number of UK babies born breathing toxic air – we mapped birth data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for 2019 against local authority areas that had levels of PM2.5 breaching World Health Organisation recommendations at that time (10µg/m3). Resulting in 268,901 of 712,519 births across the UK, which equates to more than a quarter of a million babies and 37.7% of all children born in 2019. If the data were applied to the new 2021 WHO recommendations (5µg/m3), introduced in September 2021, this would rise to 696,778, which is 97.8%. You can access the latest guidelines at https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240034228. It’s important to note that despite the guidelines, there is no safe amount of air pollution for anyone to breathe.

To calculate how often babies are born breathing toxic air every year we took the total number of minutes in a year to get 525,600 minutes and divided it by the number of babies born in areas of toxic air (268, 901) to get 1.95, so every two minutes.

2021 WHO air quality recommendation for PM2.5 is 5µg/m3 (annual mean) compared to a UK legal limit of 25µg/m3 (except for Scotland, which is 10µg/m3). WHO guideline for nitrogen dioxide is 10µg/m3 (annual mean) compared to a UK legal limit of 40µg/m3. Data available at: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240034228;

https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/assets/documents/Air_Quality_Objectives_Update.pdf

For more information on the health impacts of air pollution see the report. Specifically, for children being at risk of potentially developing asthma from exposure to air pollution see: Gitte J Holst, Carsten B Pedersen, Malene Thygesen, Jørgen Brandt, Camilla Geels, Jakob H Bønløkke, Torben Sigsgaard, professorAir pollution and family related determinants of asthma onset and persistent wheezing in children: nationwide case-control study, British Medical Journal (BMJ) 2020.

  1. AUK-BLF (2021) Clear the Air: levelling up respiratory health to protect future generations and our planet

AUK-BLF mapped the birth rates data from the ONS against data produced by AUK-BLF on PM2.5 levels near hospitals, and the share of the hospitals with levels of air pollution exceeding WHO 2005 guidelines which have maternity units.

AUK-BLF commissioned Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants (CERC) to examine how many schools, colleges, hospitals, GP surgeries and care homes are in areas above the WHO’s guidelines for PM2.5. This analysis used existing modelled PM2.5 data published by the UK Government as part of their responsibilities under the Environment Act 1995. CERC used predicted annual average PM2.5 data for 2019 taken from Defra.

We found the number of maternity units usingFind Maternity services”[i] on the NHS website and the postcodes of hospitals from the CERC research commissioned by AUK-BLF.

See table at the end of these notes for ranking of air pollution and birth-rates for each area

  1. Zak Bond and Harriet Edwards, AUK-BLF (2021). The Invisible Threat: How We Can Protect People From Air Pollution and Create a Fairer, Healthier Society, p12. Available at: https://www.asthma.org.uk/8c878464/globalassets/campaigns/publications/invisible-threat-final.pdf
  2. 80% of NO2 air pollution comes from vehicle emissions at the roadside. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/633270/air-quality-plan-detail.pdf

Similarly, PM2.5 levels are above the WHO’s 2005 guidelines on all monitored roads across 19 cities in the UK. Available at: https://www.centreforcities.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Cities-Outlook-2020.pdf

  1. The Invisible Threat: How We Can Protect People From Air Pollution and Create a Fairer, Healthier Society (2021), p12.
  2. The Great Asthma Divide: The Annual Asthma Survey 2019 by Andrew Cumella, Senior Analyst at Asthma UK, p24. In a survey of top symptom triggers for people with asthma, 45.6% of children with asthma – or their parents on their behalf – reported air pollution as a trigger, while 59% of adults surveyed pinpointed air pollution as a trigger. There are 1.1 million children in the UK with asthma, meaning 45.6% is 501,600 children.
  3. Royal College of Physicians & Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Heath. (2016) Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution. Available at: http://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution
  4. Shama et al. (2007) Traffic-related atmospheric pollutants levels during pregnancy and offspring’s term birth weight. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/ articles/PMC1964922
  5. Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (2018) Associations of long-term average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide with mortality. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/734799/COMEAP_NO2_Report.pdf
  6. Royal College of Physicians (2016) Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution. Available at: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution
  7. Department for Transport (2020) Travel by vehicle availability, income, ethnic group, household type, mobility status and NS-SEC, last updated August 2020. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/nts07-car-ownership-and-access
  8. See reference 2
  9. Public Health England (2019) Fingertips - childhood asthma admissions (2018-2019 for children 0-9 years old). Available at: https://fingertips.phe.org.uk/profile/child-health-profiles/data

  

Table 1: Local authorities exceeding WHO's 2005 recommendations for annual average PM2.5 levels across England, starting with the highest levels

1

Nation

London?

Local Authority

Live births

PM25 2019 (total)

2

England

London

Newham

5,492

12.9918

3

England

London

City of London

78

12.8325

4

England

London

Waltham Forest

4,482

12.7743

5

England

London

Westminster

2,315

12.6683

6

England

London

Islington

2,680

12.6405

7

England

London

Barking and Dagenham

3,574

12.6365

8

England

London

Kensington and Chelsea

1,612

12.631

9

England

London

Hackney

4,094

12.5902

10

England

London

Tower Hamlets

4,307

12.5387

11

England

London

Redbridge

4,495

12.4125

12

England

London

Haringey

3,595

12.3101

13

England

London

Hammersmith and Fulham

2,189

12.303

14

England

London

Lambeth

3,844

12.2468

15

England

London

Southwark

4,027

12.2417

16

England

London

Camden

2,448

12.2268

17

England

London

Enfield

4,548

12.0288

18

England

London

Brent

4,919

11.9668

19

England

London

Greenwich

4,125

11.9206

20

England

London

Wandsworth

4,471

11.9064

21

England

London

Ealing

4,793

11.8898

22

England

London

Lewisham

4,393

11.8628

23

England

London

Barnet

4,973

11.7119

24

England

 

Slough

2,336

11.6995

25

England

London

Merton

2,924

11.6815

26

England

 

Dartford

1,612

11.6638

27

England

London

Hounslow

3,866

11.564

28

England

 

Luton

3,256

11.5073

29

England

London

Bexley

2,954

11.4041

30

England

 

Medway

3,330

11.3632

31

England

London

Harrow

3,526

11.293

32

England

 

Watford

1,344

11.2787

33

England

London

Havering

3,186

11.2662

34

England

London

Hillingdon

4,139

11.257

35

England

 

Sandwell

4,391

11.2372

36

England

 

Gravesham

1,343

11.2319

37

England

London

Richmond upon Thames

2,181

11.2188

38

England

 

Thurrock

2,464

11.1906

39

England

London

Croydon

5,304

11.118

40

England

 

Spelthorne

1,230

11.093

41

England

 

Walsall

3,695

11.0726

42

England

London

Kingston upon Thames

1,946

11.0626

43

England

 

Hertsmere

1,212

11.0622

44

England

 

Broxbourne

1,140

10.9963

45

England

 

Epping Forest

1,642

10.9654

46

England

 

Welwyn Hatfield

1,264

10.9299

47

England

London

Sutton

2,555

10.898

48

England

 

Birmingham

15,483

10.8453

49

England

 

South Bucks

676

10.8431

50

England

 

Milton Keynes

3,273

10.8287

51

England

 

St Albans

1,595

10.8202

52

England

 

Three Rivers

968

10.7886

53

England

 

Leicester

4,622

10.7195

54

England

 

Runnymede

895

10.6704

55

England

 

Epsom and Ewell

824

10.6686

56

England

 

Harlow

1,203

10.6281

57

England

 

Ipswich

1,753

10.6133

58

England

 

Coventry

4,198

10.5776

59

England

 

Brentwood

832

10.5763

60

England

London

Bromley

3,862

10.5608

61

England

 

Nottingham

3,781

10.5598

62

England

 

Elmbridge

1,478

10.5557

63

England

 

Reading

2,104

10.5436

64

England

 

Portsmouth

2,316

10.5412

65

England

 

Northampton

2,909

10.5304

66

England

 

Stevenage

1,100

10.5297

67

England

 

Derby

3,009

10.511

68

England

 

Dacorum

1,865

10.5043

69

England

 

Chiltern

839

10.4745

70

England

 

Central Bedfordshire

3,363

10.451

71

England

 

Wycombe

1,916

10.4295

72

England

 

North Hertfordshire

1,500

10.3998

73

England

 

Windsor and Maidenhead

1,515

10.3945

74

England

 

Basildon

2,476

10.3938

75

England

 

Chelmsford

1,812

10.3921

76

England

 

East Hertfordshire

1,529

10.3684

77

England

 

Cambridge

1,335

10.3591

78

England

 

Tamworth

849

10.3414

79

England

 

Solihull

2,221

10.3374

80

England

 

Erewash

1,041

10.3256

81

England

 

Oxford

1,541

10.308

82

England

 

Bedford

2,098

10.2927

83

England

 

Broxtowe

1,034

10.2497

84

England

 

Wellingborough

916

10.2355

85

England

 

Peterborough

2,779

10.234

86

England

 

Blaby

1,054

10.2226

87

England

 

Wolverhampton

3,257

10.206

88

England

 

Aylesbury Vale

2,198

10.2015

89

England

 

Norwich

1,471

10.2004

90

England

 

Huntingdonshire

1,867

10.1952

91

England

 

Dudley

3,450

10.1787

92

England

 

Nuneaton and Bedworth

1,535

10.163

93

England

 

Charnwood

1,718

10.1528

94

England

 

Gedling

1,098

10.1139

95

England

 

Braintree

1,602

10.11

96

England

 

Cherwell

1,810

10.1099

97

England

 

Kettering

1,213

10.1074

98

England

 

Colchester

2,087

10.1072

99

England

 

Swale

1,717

10.0936

100

England

 

Woking

1,177

10.0926

101

England

 

Surrey Heath

837

10.0893

102

England

 

Maidstone

1,891

10.0746

103

England

 

South Cambridgeshire

1,547

10.0478

104

England

 

Uttlesford

907

10.0443

105

England

 

Crawley

1,531

10.0356

106

England

 

Tonbridge and Malling

1,425

10.0251

107

England

 

Wokingham

1,705

10.0194

 

Table 2: local authorities with the highest birth rate compared to annual pollution levels, 2019

 

Local Authority 

Live Births 

PM2.5

Most polluted road, NO2 

Birmingham 

15,483 

10.8453 

52.488 

 

Leeds 

9,272 

9.262 

47.663 

 

Bradford 

7,270 

8.7265 

39.270 

 

Manchester 

7,229 

9.7127 

43.594 

 

Sheffield 

5,923 

9.3057 

44.180 

 

Liverpool 

5,574 

9.2571 

47.210 

 

Newham 

5,492 

12.9918 

56.953 

 

Croydon 

5,304 

11.118 

42.423 

 

Barnet 

4,973 

11.7119 

60.015 

 

10 

Brent 

4,919 

11.9668 

62.121 

 

 

[Note: Table 2 shows the local authorities with the highest birth rates in the country, and the annual average levels of PM2.5 and NO2 in the city. Highlighted numbers show where PM2.5 exceeds the WHO 2005 Air Quality Guidelines and where NO2 exceeds the annual legal limit according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).]