Martha Lauchlan writes about why studies linking climate change to public health impacts are so important

This blog post was originally published in October 2019

The recent findings from Kings College London (KCL) about the link between air pollution and hospital admissions are a stark reminder of the effects of climate change on our population. For years, the deadly impact of pollution has gone under the radar as mortalities are categorised under pre-existing conditions such as cardiovascular disease and asthma, and the implication of poor air quality has been underestimated. It is important studies like this one from KCL that shine a bright and unavoidable light on the relationship between air quality and our health.

Some councillors may have found that engagement with the whole community on the issue of climate change has been stagnant and it is understandable that, for many people, it just isn’t seen as a top priority. But when the broad scope of climate change is reframed under smaller fragments, like air quality, with obvious “real life” effects, people will pay attention.

Currently, levels of air pollutants around some parts of the country are at illegal levels, endangering populations in surrounding areas. The effects of long-term exposure to pollutants include cognitive decline, stunted growth, respiratory problems, lung disease, cancer, and premature deaths, and studies have found that those at greater risk are children, older people, and those with pre-existing chronic illnesses.

One high-profile case is the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died from a severe asthma attack in 2013, following three years of seizures and 27 hospital visits. Ella lived 25m from the South Circular in Catford, South London, where recorded levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulates have exceeded EU limits. While the inquest into her death is still ongoing, her proximity to illegal levels of air pollutants is thought to be the cause.

There are huge changes that need to happen on a national level, but that doesn’t mean that locally we are powerless. Labour councils are already doing innovative work to combat poor air quality and its effects.

Examples of these can be found on the Best Practice section of the LGA Labour Climate Emergency website. Some of my favourite examples include:

  • The Enjoy Waltham Forest Programme which closed roads in favour of pedestrianised areas and segregated cycle lanes
  • School street closures which restrict traffic down roads immediately outside schools during the beginning and ending of school days, such as in Southwark, Islington and Hackney
  • ‘Active Travel Awards’ in Doncaster to commend reduced reliance on cars
  • The world’s first ‘zero emission zone’ in Oxford which will ban non-zero emission vehicles from parking or unloading within the zone during the day
  • Bradford’s expansion of rapid charger networks to encourage drivers to convert to electric

​Please note – this was written when Martha worked for the LGA Labour Group between 2019-2020.