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Urban Air Quality: An Increasing Challenge for Public Health

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An increasing proportion of the world’s population live in densely populated three dimensional urban landscapes. Many of the world’s megacities like London have severe air pollution problems. There was a time when the UK led the world in cleaning up its air – passing the Clean Air Act in 1956 to reduce smoke and sulphur dioxide.

In recent years however air quality improvements have stalled. The UK has been breeching European Union (EU) limit values every year since 2005 for the modern day pollutants – namely nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and (WHO guidelines for) particulate matter (PM) – and currently there is no prospect of achieving compliance for NO2 in some areas until 2025. What is more worrying, over the same period, evidence to support the detrimental short and long-term effects on health has increased substantially: current estimates indicate that exposure to PM2 .5 contributes to 29,000 premature deaths each year while exposure to NO2 contributes to 23,000 premature deaths in the UK each year.

In 2012 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified particulates in diesel fumes as a known carcinogen – in 2013 a WHO report concluded that health effects of PM and NO2 can occur at concentrations lower than the their health-based guideline values, which of note for PM, are lower than the EU limits we fail to adhere to. In addition, other than the well-documented risks to cardiopulmonary health, increasing evidence exists that air pollution exerts a wider threat, negatively influencing reproductive outcomes and neurological health. Establishing the biological link between exposure to urban PM and NO2 pollution is a huge, but necessary challenge if we are to protect the most vulnerable in Society and help establish regulation that minimises this increasingly important public health issue.

This talk is part of the Physical Chemistry Research Interest Group series.

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