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Posted on 16 September 2019

Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive, British Heart Foundation

Take immediate action to tackle pollution. 

"Congestion, air pollution and overcrowded and outdated transport infrastructure can make parts of our major cities unpleasant and unhealthy places to live. Our researchers in Edinburgh have shown how the fine particles from (mainly diesel) exhaust fumes can make their way into our blood vessels, where they can do long-lasting damage to our heart and circulatory system.  We know that outdoor air pollution contributes to up to 36,000 deaths a year in the UK and this disproportionately affects those from lower socioeconomic background and people living in busy, built up urban environments where air pollution is typically higher.

There are many policy solutions to this – from charging clean air zones that disincentivise the use of the most polluting vehicles to quickening the growth in use of ultra-low emissions vehicles.  While these solutions will help to reduce harmful emissions, they are still premised on continued reliance on transport.  We would like to see much more active transport in cities – particularly cycling and walking – as these not only reduce reliance on diesel vehicles, but also are good for heart health. Just a small amount of daily, moderate exercise, has huge benefits for personal cardiovascular health, and can greatly reduce the risk of certain cancers too. Being active is often unexpectedly enjoyable too, giving us a sense of wellbeing that we don’t get from being still and passive. 

Clearly, not everyone can simply stop using transport and start walking and cycling to go about their daily business in cities. Many may find the prospect of walking and cycling to go about their daily business daunting due to a long commute and lack of infrastructure, but proper implementation of the government’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy will hopefully help to make this more of a possibility.

We also know that people worry about their exposure to air pollution while walking or cycling on busy roads. BHF-funded research has shown that, for most people, the benefits of exercising outdoors outweigh the risks, although exercising outdoors in high levels of pollution should be avoided by people who are more vulnerable to its effects, such as older people and those with heart and circulatory disease. But, ultimately, we would like to see improvements to the UK’s air quality so we will all feel more able to move around cities under our own steam. 

If we can improve our infrastructure and increase active transport significantly enough to reduce reliance on vehicles, we will have killed two birds with one stone; cutting air pollution while improving general health (especially lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke). Hopefully, active transport will then become even more attractive, as the air we breathe while doing it gets cleaner and the roads feel safer.

Humans evolved to move, and on the whole, we’re happier when we’re moving a lot. That is why we strongly welcome action from the Mayor of London to use charging to keep the most polluting vehicles out of central areas, and to gradually expand those areas."

Pollution is one of the key areas of research for The British Heart Foundation because of its links to a number of heart conditions and early deaths in the UK.

Find out more about our Campaign for Movement here.