Breathing air in the UK’s most polluted areas is as bad as smoking almost 160 cigarettes a year, a charity has warned.

The British Heart Foundation said pollution in cities is a public health emergency and urged the government to bring in stricter rules to cut it down.

It found air quality is four times as bad in the worst area – Newham in East London – than it is in the cleanest – the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.

And almost all of the 25 areas with the most polluted air in the UK were in the English capital, with the exception only of Slough and Dartford.

Particles of pollution can seep into the body and cause life-threatening damage, raising the risk of stroke and heart attack, and contributing to lung diseases and cancers.

The British Heart Foundation compared the amount of life someone could expect to lose from breathing in certain levels of PM2.5 pollution with the effects of smoking cigarettes (stock image)

The British Heart Foundation compared the amount of life someone could expect to lose from breathing in certain levels of PM2.5 pollution with the effects of smoking cigarettes (stock image)

 The British Heart Foundation compared the amount of life someone could expect to lose from breathing in certain levels of PM2.5 pollution with the effects of smoking cigarettes (stock image)

‘Air pollution is a major public health emergency and over many years it has not been treated with the seriousness it deserves,’ said the charity’s Jacob West.

‘Unless we take radical measures now to curb air pollution, in the future we will look back on this period of inaction with shame.’

People living in Newham, a notoriously deprived borough of London, breathe in air so polluted they inhale the equivalent of 159 cigarettes per year, the BHF revealed.

Others where the air is comparable to an average of 155 or more cigarettes each year included Westminster (157), Kensington & Chelsea (156), Islington (156), Waltham Forest (156) and Hackney (155).

Outside of London the worst affected areas were Slough in Berkshire (equal to 145 cigarettes), Dartford in Kent (144), Portsmouth (142) and Medway, Kent (142).

The other end of the scale, with the cleanest air, was made up of rural areas of northern Scotland, including the Outer Hebrides (40 cigarettes), the Shetland Islands (43), the Highlands (45), Orkney (46) and Argyll and Bute (48).

WHERE IS AIR POLLUTION WORST IN THE UK? 

  1. Newham (Pollution equal to smoking 159 cigarettes per year)
  2. Westminster (157 cigarettes)
  3. Kensington and Chelsea (156)
  4. Islington (156)
  5. Waltham Forest (156)
  6. Hackney (155)
  7. Tower Hamlets (154)
  8. Barking and Dagenham (153)
  9. Lambeth (152)
  10. Southwark (152)  

WHERE IS AIR POLLUTION WORST OUTSIDE OF LONDON?

  1. Slough (Pollution equal to smoking 145 cigarettes per year)
  2. Dartford (144 cigarettes)
  3. Portsmouth (142)
  4. Medway, Kent (142)
  5. Luton (140)
  6. Gravesham (139)
  7. Thurrock, Essex (138)
  8. Spelthorne, Surrey (138)
  9. Watford (136)
  10. South Buckinghamshire (134)

The BHF made the calculations by measuring average exposure to PM2.5 particles, which are the smallest measurable types of air pollution.

Experts worked out the number of years of life which could be expected to be lost to breathing in the amount of pollution in a specific area, then compared this to how much life one would be expected to lose to smoking.

PM2.5 particulate matter comes from dust, exhaust fumes and smoke from power plants, fires or industrial works.

When breathed in it can be directly toxic to the tissue it comes into contact with and can raise the risk of heart disease killing someone at a younger age.

It may also worsen heart and lung conditions in existing patients, or contribute to children or the elderly developing illnesses such as asthma.

Experts say there is 'no safe level' of PM2.5 air pollution, which comes from exhaust fumes (stock image)

Experts say there is 'no safe level' of PM2.5 air pollution, which comes from exhaust fumes (stock image)

Experts say there is ‘no safe level’ of PM2.5 air pollution, which comes from exhaust fumes (stock image)

WHERE IS AIR QUALITY BEST IN THE UK?

  1. Outer Hebrides (Pollution equal to smoking 40 cigarettes per year)
  2. Shetland Islands (43)
  3. Scottish Highlands (45)
  4. Orkney Islands (46)
  5. Argyll and Bute, Scotland (48)
  6. Fermanagh and Omagh, NI (54)
  7. Derry City and Strabane, NI (55)
  8. Moray, Scotland (55)
  9. Perth and Kinross (57)
  10. Stirling (57) 

The UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says on its website ‘there is understood to be no safe threshold below which no adverse effects would be anticipated’.

Dr Mark Miller, a University of Edinburgh scientist who researches the effects of pollution on the heart, said: ‘It is now recognised that air pollution affects almost all organs of the body and has a staggering detrimental effect on our health.

‘Ultimately, there is no safe level of air pollution, but adopting stricter limits will be crucial to ensure that action is taken to effectively reduce air pollution.

‘The potential health benefits of realising these targets are enormous, allowing everyone to live healthier lives for longer.’

The British Heart Foundation has called on the next government to bring in stricter anti-pollution laws aimed at keeping PM2.5 levels below 10 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) – the target used by the World Health Organization.

Currently, the UK follows EU guidelines which are looser and suggest pollution be limited to 25ug/m3.

All the areas on the BHF’s analysis were within the EU limit, but 79 out of 391 had higher pollution than the WHO’s target limit. 

WHAT HAVE RECENT STUDIES SHOWN POLLUTION CAN DO TO OUR HEALTH AND BODIES?

CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE A LOW IQ: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found in May 2019 that children born to mothers who live in polluted areas have an IQ that is up to seven points lower than those living in places with cleaner air.

CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE POORER MEMORY: Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found boys exposed to greater levels of PM2.5 in the womb  performed worse on memory tests by the time they are 10.

DELAY THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN: Youngsters who live less than one-third of a mile away from busy roads are twice as likely to score lower on tests of communication skills in infancy, found researchers at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health in April. They were also more likely to have poorer hand-eye coordination.

MAKE CHILDREN MORE ANXIOUS: University of Cincinnati scientists claimed pollution may alter the structure of children’s brains to make them more anxious. Their study of 14 youngsters found rates of anxiety was higher among those exposed to greater levels of pollution. 

CUT YOUR CHILD’S LIFE SHORT: Children born today will lose nearly two years of their lives because of air pollution, according to a report by the US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia in April 2019. UNICEF called for action on the back of the study.

RAISE A CHILD’S RISK OF AUTISM: Researchers at Monash University in Australia discovered youngsters living in highly polluted parts of Shanghai have a 86 per cent greater chance of developing ASD. Lead author Dr Yuming Guo said: ‘The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment.’

CAUSE ASTHMA IN CHILDREN: Four million children around the world develop asthma each year because of road traffic pollution, a major study by academics at George Washington University estimated. Experts are divided as to what causes asthma – but exposure to pollution in childhood increases the risk by damaging the lungs.

MAKE CHILDREN FAT: University of Southern California experts found last November that 10 year olds who lived in polluted areas when they were babies are, on average, 2.2lbs (1kg), heavier than those who grew up around cleaner air. Nitrogen dioxide pollution could disrupt how well children burn fat, the scientists said. 

LEAVE WOMEN INFERTILE EARLIER: Scientists at the University of Modena, Italy, claimed in May 2019 that they believe pollution speeds up ageing in women, just like smoking, meaning they run out of eggs faster. This was based on them finding almost two-thirds of women who have a low ‘reserve’ of eggs regularly inhaled toxic air.

RAISE THE RISK OF A MISCARRIAGE: University of Utah scientists found in January that pregnant women are 16 per cent more likely to suffer the heartbreak of a miscarriage if they live in areas of high pollution.  

RAISE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER: Scientists at the University of Stirling found six women working at the same bridge next to a busy road in the US got breast cancer within three years of each other. There was a one in 10,000 chance the cases were a coincidence, the study said. It suggested chemicals in the traffic fumes caused the cancer by shutting down the BRCA genes, which try to stop tumours growing. 

DAMAGE A MAN’S SPERM: Brazilian scientists at the University of Sao Paulo found in March that mice exposed to toxic air had lower counts and worse quality sperm compared to those who had inhaled clean air since birth. 

MAKE MEN LESS LIKELY TO GET SEXUALLY AROUSED: Scientists at Guangzhou Medical University in China found rats exposed to air pollution struggled to get sexually aroused. Scientists believe it may also affect men, as inhaling poisonous particles may trigger inflammation in blood vessels and starve the genitals of oxygen – affecting men’s ability to become sexually aroused.

MAKE MEN MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION:  Men who live on main roads are more likely to have difficulty getting an erection due to exposure to pollution, a Guangzhou University in China study suggested in February. Toxic fumes reduced blood flow to the genitals, tests on rats showed, putting them at risk of developing erectile dysfunction. 

RAISE THE RISK OF PSYCHOSIS: In March, King’s College London scientists linked toxic air to intense paranoia and hearing voices in young people for the first time. They said uncovering exactly how pollution may lead to psychosis should be an ‘urgent health priority’.

MAKE YOU DEPRESSED: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found in January that that the more polluted the air, the sadder we are. Their study was based on analysing social media users in China alongside the average daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data where they lived.

CAUSE DEMENTIA: Air pollution could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia in the UK, researchers from King’s College London and St George’s, University of London, calculated last September. Tiny pollutants breathed deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream, where they may travel into the brain and cause inflammation – a problem which may trigger dementia.

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