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Air pollution and brain health: Government can’t afford to drag its feet any longer

Earlier this year, we blogged about the first compelling evidence linking air pollution and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

Since then, it’s become increasingly evident that poor air quality and an increased risk of developing dementia in later life are linked.

As individuals, there’s little we can do about the air we breathe, so it’s vital the UK Government lead from the front in reducing air pollution and the resulting harm to our brain health.

But what we have seen so far has fallen disappointingly short. The Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) has recently missed the statutory deadline (Oct 31) to set new targets for improving air quality. No further deadline has been made public.

With dementia costing the UK economy £25bn a year, we urgently need tighter measures on air pollution to help reduce the prevalence of dementia in the future.

What do we know so far?

Air pollution affects all of us – and poor air quality is a significant public health issue, both in the UK and globally.

Air pollutants are tiny particles and gases in the air that come from vehicle exhausts and burning fossil fuels and wood.

Earlier this year, the UK Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants concluded that exposure to air pollution does lead to cognitive decline and increased risk of dementia.

Current evidence suggests this is because air pollution damages the heart, and therefore indirectly damages the brain through reduced blood supply. More research is needed to establish whether pollutants enter the brain directly.

How are the actions at Defra impacting brain health?

The Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible for setting legal targets to improve the quality of the air we breathe.

In March 2022, the Government launched its consultation on targets relating to the Environment Act 2021 – this included setting new targets on nature, air, water and waste.

As part of this, Alzheimer’s Research UK called on the Government to bring in safe and achievable targets, in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, of 10 µg/m3 PM2.5 by 2030.

As we continue to wait to hear more on when these targets will be published, the public should be deeply concerned that these delays may leave us all exposed to potentially harmful air pollution for longer, with negative impacts on our brain health.

We’re also concerned that the impacts of poor air quality are not equally distributed across society. Many areas with the highest levels of social deprivation are also the most exposed to air pollution, a link more pronounced for ethnic minority communities where historically dementia has often been misunderstood and highly stigmatised.

What are Alzheimer’s Research UK doing?

As part of the Healthy Air Coalition, Alzheimer’s Research UK is working closely with health and environmental organisations to improve air quality across the nation.

Along with the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and other health organisations, we recently sent a letter outlining these concerns to Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey. We urged her to make reducing air pollution a priority for this Government, with new air quality targets set in law as soon as possible.

But we want these targets to be bold. The Government’s current proposal to reduce pollution levels to 10 µg/m3 by 2040 is simply not good enough. We believe achieving a target of 10 µg/m3 by 2030 should be seen as the absolute minimum, with a further aim to achieve the WHO’s most recent guideline of 5 µg/m3 as early as possible.

Research from Imperial College London shows that reaching these levels by 2030 would not only benefit public health, but also the NHS and wider economy. Research indicates a total economic benefit of over £380 billion.

Alzheimer’s Research UK is committed to working with policy makers to help achieve these objectives.  An independent report from Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty further highlighted the risk of air pollution to public health.

In the meantime, we will continue to monitor the growing evidence base and the changing political landscape to ensure the government remains committed to improving air quality for us all.

If you’d like to contact us about any of the above, please email: [email protected].

UPDATE: On December 16, the government officially published its targets to reduce air pollution levels to 10 µg/m3 by 2040, and to reduce population exposure to PM2.5 by 35%,compared to 2018, by 2040. As required by law, the government will publish more details about its plans to deliver these targets in its Environmental Improvement Plan by 31 January 2023.

About the author

Michael Jones

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