Impact of air pollution on Londoner’s health

Plenary on 2014-06-18
Session date: 
June 18, 2014
Question By: 
Stephen Knight
Liberal Democrats
Asked Of: 
Lord Darzi, Chair of the London Health Commission


What steps has the London Health Commission taken to investigate the impact of air pollution on Londoners’ health?


Answer for Impact of air pollution on Londoner’s health

Answer for Impact of air pollution on Londoner’s health

Answered By: 
Lord Darzi, Chair of the London Health Commission

Professor the Lord Darzi (Chair, London Health Commission):  Thank you.  This is a significant challenge, again a unique challenge, facing London in terms of the air pollution than the rest of the country. 


The Commission should have a view about this.  The way we have done it is: what is the impact of pollution on health?  That is question one.  The second is: what is the impact of the current set of interventions that the Mayor is leading on?  Third is: what could this Commission do to accelerate the impact of these interventions?  That is the way I am thinking when it comes to pollution.


The most important figure is 7% of mortality in London is related to pollution.  That is equivalent to 4,300 deaths a year.  That is a big, big challenge if you look at it from that perspective.  That, in 2012, is the data that I have.  That excludes childhood asthma, exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and all the other aspects of pollution.


Secondly, do we have the right sets of measures, in terms of what the Mayor is doing as far as the Clean Air Programme, alternative transport, reducing the carbon footprint.  The health service does have a role to play there.  I think we have one of the largest carbon footprints of any other industry because we are working, sorry to come back on the estate, and what we are working out of.  The proposals that the Mayor is leading on are the right sets of proposals.  There is no question about that.  I do not need to go through those with you; you know them better than I do. 


At the same time, one can take an oversight of what is happening in another big city across the pond.  Look at New York and what [former Mayor Michael] Bloomberg has managed to achieve there in terms of air pollution.  They had the worst particulate matter (PM) percentages per air.  They had the sulphur levels.  At one of our engagement events last week at Kingston we had the ex-Health Commissioner that worked with Bloomberg and some of the interventions that they have taken there, including some of the stuff that the Mayor is doing; getting rid of cars, taxis and public transport after a certain age.  I think these are the right sorts of interventions.  I think the Commission may have to say something about how we accelerate that.  A 7% contribution to deaths in London related to pollution is a considerable figure that the Commission should have an opinion on.  That is work in progress.


Stephen Knight AM:  Lord Darzi, thank you very much for that response.  I wonder if one of the issues is not around leadership, around raising the issue of air pollution and the dangers of air pollution.  I do not think it has quite the same level of public awareness as some of the other causes.  You do not often hear the medical profession talking about air pollution.  Indeed, the presentation which you gave us earlier talked about smoking, it talked about obesity and inactivity.  You often hear clinicians talking about those kinds of health issues.  Yet, we know, as you mentioned the figures suggest that air pollution is twice as deadly as passive smoking, three times as deadly as obesity. 


When are we going to hear the medical profession start to speak out around the issue of air pollution, advising people to think again about buying a diesel car, or perhaps urging politicians to enact legislation to clean up our air?  Clearly we have a problem.  I look forward to some leadership from people like you.


Professor the Lord Darzi (Chair, London Health Commission):  Thank you.  It is a good point and, to be honest, I will be very transparent here.  I did not know these figures, either.  I work in London and I live in London.  You are absolutely correct. 


This whole public health agenda needs to be brought at the front of this debate.  The biggest contribution the London Health Commission needs to make is some of the big, big challenges facing our health and what we need to do about this.  Who needs to talk about this?  Who needs to lead the change in relation to this?  The Mayor has a very, very important role here.  I think the clinicians should speak about it, but ultimately the Mayor could lead.  If you look at what the former Mayor in New York has done in terms of pollution, in terms of obesity, in terms of smoking, all of these need a complete rethink.  It is not a little paragraph here and there in some strategy, we need to talk about public health and prevention and wellbeing.  We actually need to act on these things. 


Stephen Knight AM:  I assure you in this Chamber we spend an awful lot of time beating up the Mayor about air pollution and what more he could do about it.  Of course, the boroughs have a role nowadays in terms of public health.  I do not know whether you know the figures on what proportion of the borough health and wellbeing strategies even have a reference to air pollution, but I can tell you that from my figures only 9 out of the 33 borough public health and wellbeing strategies even mention air pollution as an issue.


I just wonder if that is that an issue which you could raise with the boroughs and with directors of public health in boroughs from your leadership position in London.


Professor the Lord Darzi (Chair, London Health Commission):  The answer is yes, and that comes back to the third section of the framework that I described.  What can we say and do to accelerate what the Mayor is trying to achieve at local level?  You are right.  We have the reasonable sets of proposals that the Mayor is leading on, but I think there is a scope in accelerating some of these and what we can learn from other cities that have addressed the issue of pollution.  To do that, you have to start with awareness.  In actual fact, I could even potentially, at the end of this piece of work, share which the worst boroughs are in terms of air pollution.  We might be able to see whether that data is available as well because the intervention needs to be directed.  It is interesting because that is exactly what has happened in New York City.  There is a perception that pollution is usually in the most deprived areas of the big city.  That is not the case.  In actual fact, Manhattan being if you like the richest square mile or whatever it is of New York has the worst pollution rates.