Pollution must be seen as a human health hazard as well as an environmental issue, according to a report which highlights the NHS as being a “significant polluter”.
Professor Dame Sally Davies said the NHS is the biggest user of single-use plastic bags in England and is estimated to be responsible for 5% of all road traffic at any one time.
As one of the world’s largest employers with more than a million staff, the NHS must lead the way in reducing the “daily cocktail” of pollution that the public is exposed to, England’s Chief Medical Officer said.
Her latest annual report examines the impact of air, light and noise on health – warning that such pollutants are driving chronic sickness.
People in deprived areas are more exposed to pollution – notably air pollution – while those with existing underlying medical conditions, the young and the old, face a greater health impact from pollution exposure, her report warns.
Dame Sally said the perception that pollutants are poisons that quickly cause harm needs to be changed, as the bigger issue is of them being long-term risk factors for a variety of diseases.
Many pollutants are risk factors for a range of non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and investigation is needed to assess the longer-term impacts of lower-level pollution exposure.
Addressing pollution is therefore disease prevention, she said.
There is also growing evidence that pollution, notably air pollution, increases risk of infectious disease.
Dame Sally said: “We all know the environmental impacts of pollution — but what is less recognised is the impact on health.
“With factors like air, light and noise – the public is exposed to a daily cocktail of pollutants. Some of these can be linked to chronic conditions like heart disease and asthma. This increases the risk for some of the most vulnerable members of our society and places a huge burden on our health service.
“Everybody has a role to play in cutting pollution, but the NHS has more than a million staff, accounts for one in 20 vehicles on the road and is a big user of single-use disposable plastics. Some trusts are already blazing a trail and I urge others to follow.
“We also urgently need to up our game and gather better information on how factors like light, noise and chemical pollution are affecting us.”
She said many NHS trusts already have schemes in place to reduce pollutants and avoidable waste – and a handful are already emissions free.
Dame Sally commended the efforts of ambulance trusts to phase out diesel vehicles, singling out South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust for praise for its experimentation with photovoltaic cells to keep electrical equipment in ambulances powered while avoiding idling.
Her report lists a number of actions that the NHS and others can take to improve their pollution footprint, while she wants the Government to look at the human health impacts of chemicals.
She said local authorities are best placed to take action.
“While the national Government has to set the standards and the guidelines and give advice, pollution is a very local thing,” she added.
“One road – a main road – can have lots of pollution, and a road very close can have very little pollution.
“So the local authorities have the powers, they have the public health expertise, they really need to use those powers to make a difference for their local neighbourhood.”
Her report also calls for Public Health England to support local authorities by compiling available, up-to-date evidence on the health impacts of pollution.
Data collection and research is also key as genomic mapping, for example, could reveal pollutant causes of cancer.
Dames Sally said a world free of pollutants was “not do-able”.
“We have preservatives in food, we have volatile compounds from industrial solvents, we have cleaning products, we have well-established sources, like wood, building materials, carpets, paint, flooring… so we know that we are exposed throughout the day to a variety of chemicals,” she said.
“Of course we’re going to be exposed to pollutants, that’s part of everyday life. If we want to make economic progress, we have pollutants, the issue is what is a reasonably low risk level?
“And we don’t have enough evidence, and that’s why we’ve got to start to monitor much more carefully long term, so that we know and can advise people as we go forward and get more evidence.
“I’m not calling for a no-pollutant life – it’s not do-able.”
The report’s editor, Andrew Dalton, said: “Pollutants are a part of daily life but, as this report shows, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the threat they pose to health.
“Improving data on this is the best first step we can take to protect the public’s health as it will help us to identify any currently unknown future threats.
“In the meantime, it is encouraging to see many local authorities, hospitals and other organisations finding innovative ways to reduce the health impacts of pollution.”