Londoners exposed to dangerous levels of toxic air, BHF warns


The Government must go further and faster with plans to tackle air pollution in London to have any chance of cleaning up our toxic air, a report by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) warns.

BHF analysis of the latest official data shows that every London borough has average levels of tiny toxic particles in the air which exceed guidelines set out by the World Health Organization (WHO).

That means every Londoner is likely to be exposed to dangerous levels of these particles, known as fine particulate matter or PM2.5.

Newham has the highest average PM 2.5 in the whole country, with annual figures exceeding WHO limits. The borough’s population of 352,000 are likely to be subjected to dangerous levels of particulate matter pollution as they work, study and go about their everyday lives.

This is closely followed by the City of London, where the small resident population (8,700) is outnumbered by those who commute into the Square Mile. The other boroughs with the worst average PM 2.5 are Waltham Forest (population 277,000), Barking and Dagenham (211,000), and Kensington and Chelsea (156,000).

Currently, the UK subscribes to EU limits on levels of PM2.5. However, these are not as strict as those set out by the WHO, and progress towards reducing levels of major air pollutants has been mixed since the previous Government’s Clean Air Strategy was published in January 2019.

The strategy set out a number of commitments aimed at reducing levels of major air pollutants, which include halving the number of people living in areas above the WHO guideline level for PM2.5 by 2025, reducing emissions, and setting a new long-term target to reduce people’s exposure to PM2.5.

One year on, the BHF says that the nation’s health cannot wait. Promising first steps must become great strides forward, the first of which should be adopting the WHO’s strict air pollution limits into UK law by 2030.

The Environment Bill, which returned to Parliament last week, is a golden opportunity to set this in motion, the charity adds. The Bill promises the setting of legally binding air pollution targets, but some important commitments are missing from it, including pledges to adopt the stricter WHO guideline limits.


Jacob West, Director of Healthcare Innovation at the BHF, said: “This government has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take brave political action in cleaning up our toxic air.


“Tackling a public health emergency on this scale requires serious and sustained commitment. This could mean changes that might not be easy or convenient for organisations or individuals, but they will prove crucial to protecting people’s health.


“You only have to look at past Clean Air Acts or more recently the smoking ban for examples of bold legislation that has improved the air we all breathe.


“The uncomfortable truth is that UK heart and circulatory deaths attributed to air pollution could exceed 160,000 over the next decade unless we take radical steps now.”


The BHF’s report also summarises some of the latest evidence of the damaging effects of PM2.5on heart and circulatory health. Research has shown that exposure to diesel fumes can increase the risk of blood clots that lead to heart attacks, as well as a correlation between poor air quality and increased hospitalisation and deaths due to heart failure.


This highlights the urgency of demanding cleaner air for all over the next decade. In addition to stricter air pollution limits, the BHF is calling for:

  • Charging Clean Air Zones to be implemented in all areas that are in breach of the WHO guidelines,
  • An acceleration of plans to invest in cycling and walking infrastructure,
  • And a national public awareness campaign run by Public Health England, among other measures.