Pollution is killing 50,000 people a year in the UK, according to a damning new report, which lays bare the toxic danger posed by contaminated air and water.
The problem is responsible for more deaths in Britain than almost all of its Western European neighbours, the study says, and suggests a higher death toll in the UK from pollution than had been feared.
Experts had previously estimated that 40,000 people were dying in the UK from air pollution, which itself had led to calls for immediate action from the Government. The new findings, from a two-year project involving more than 40 international researchers, show the world’s air quality is reaching “crisis point” and must be dealt with urgently.
Globally, nine million people died in 2015 as a result of air pollution. Many of those deaths occur in the developing world – but even among rich countries, a huge number of people are dying as a result of unclean air and other pollution.
The new research shows that people are in the grip of a “profound and pervasive threat” that is damaging human health and well-being, according to the scientists behind it. Not enough is done to halt one of the biggest killers of people in the world, they said.
The obvious solutions are available to governments in the UK and across the world, said campaigners. But they are failing to confront the challenge and further deaths will come, they warned.
The UK has repeatedly suggested that it will work on a new clean air act, but has been criticised for delaying many of the most important measures to tackle pollution. A tax on diesel fuel, for instance, would help bring cleaner air, the campaigners said.
Others urged the Government to work quickly to establish clean air zones and encourage people to use more environmentally friendly forms of transport.
Air pollution from vehicles and factories is the most fatal of all the deadly pollution, killing 6.5 million people a year. But hazards are found in water and elsewhere, the researchers found, including pollution of water supplies that lead to infectious diseases.
Most pollution victims around the world died as a result of non-communicable conditions such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), said researchers. But others still die from unsafe water that transmits other deadly illnesses, a problem that is linked to 1.8 million deaths.
Many of the pollution-related deaths around the world come from quickly growing countries, whose populations suffer as building construction and new cars damage the environment. In the most severely affected countries, including India, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Madagascar, and Kenya, up to a quarter of all deaths were caused by pollution.
But pollution was found to be hurting that economic development, causing damage equivalent to 1.3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product in low-income countries. Diseases from pollution took up an estimated 1.7 per cent of healthcare spending in high-income countries such as the UK and 7 per cent in middle-income countries.
“This report reveals the consequences air pollution can have when left unchecked. Air pollution is reaching crisis point worldwide, and the UK is fairing worse than many countries in Western Europe and the US,” said Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation.
“A contributing factor could be our dependence on diesel vehicles, notorious for pumping out a higher amount of poisonous particles and gases. These hit hardest people with a lung condition, children and the elderly.
“The Government should act immediately by using the Budget to amend the tax system to stop incentivising diesel vehicles, and finally commit to a new clean air act.”
Among countries in Western Europe, only Belgium is worse than the UK for the number of deaths caused by pollution. Some 8.39 per cent of deaths in the UK came from pollution, far worse than other countries like the US, where more than 155,000 people died who made up just 5.74 per cent of the deaths.
The researchers behind the study said they hoped it served as a wake up call for politicians and other authorities.
The findings came as part of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, which looked at deaths in 2015. That project is looking to pull together information from the Global Burden of Disease study, a huge inquiry into the leading causes of death and illness worldwide, to come up with the findings published in The Lancet journal.
Professor Philip Landrigan, from the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, who co-led the investigation, said: "Pollution is much more than an environmental challenge – it is a profound and pervasive threat that affects many aspects of human health and well-being.
"It deserves the full attention of international leaders, civil society, health professionals, and people around the world. Despite its far-reaching effects on health, the economy and the environment, pollution has been neglected in the international assistance and the global health agendas, and some control strategies have been deeply underfunded.
"Our goal is to raise global awareness of the importance of pollution, and mobilise the political will needed to tackle it, by providing the most in-depth estimates of pollution and health available."
The British Heart Foundation warned that the effects of pollution were not simply focused on poor countries, but also the poorest within those countries. Illness and death from unclean air and water disproportionately affects the poor, said its chief executive.
"These figures are a stark reminder of the deadly toll air pollution is having worldwide,” said Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said.
"Globally, we know an estimated 80 per cent of premature deaths from air pollution are caused by heart disease and stroke.
"In the UK, poor air quality disproportionately affects some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our communities, including the young, elderly and those with existing cardiovascular conditions.
And the problem is being exacerbated by a government that is failing to do its bit to clean up the affected air and water, according to campaign group ClientEarth.
“There’s no doubt that air pollution is a worldwide public health problem. Here in the UK, there are illegal levels of air pollution across the country, harming people’s health on a daily basis,” said Andrea Lee, Healthy Air Campaigner for ClientEarth.
“Despite this, the UK government has persistently failed to take effective action to bring it to within legal levels. We need a national network of clean air zones to take the dirtiest vehicles out of the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and help for people to move to cleaner forms of transport. But ministers continue to dither and delay and we continue to breathe toxic air.”