Millions of British people breathe toxic air travelling to GPs

A new study finds that one thirds of all the NHS surgeries in UK are situated in areas where the levels of air pollution are high. This means that millions of people have to breathe in toxic air when they see their GPs. This study adds to the fact that 40,000 premature deaths are caused annually in UK due to air pollution. The latest report comes from the UK100. This is a network of council leaders that works for environmental changes.

Image Credit: LanaElcova / Shutterstock
Image Credit: LanaElcova / Shutterstock

The new study shows that London has the highest number of patients who live and visit their GPs in polluted areas. Those with asthma and other lung diseases thus are at a greater risk as they visit their healthcare providers, says the study.

The study found that around 18 million patients who are registered at various surgeries cross regions that have air pollution levels over PM2.5 which is the annual limit for air pollution from the World Health Organization (WHO). PM2.5 translates into particles that are 30 times smaller than a single human hair and these are small enough to quickly and easily penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Studies and evidence has shown that exposure to these particles are associated with several disease conditions of the lungs, heart, cardiovascular system and are also linked to diabetes and long term brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

The study found that London has 7.5 million people who visit surgeries at polluted regions. This is three quarters of all the population that visits the GPs. Birmingham has nearly half a million people exposed to high levels of pollution, closely followed by Lambeth, Newham and Wandsworth. Other highly polluted areas around GP surgeries are East Midlands (over 2 million exposed), East of England (around 2.5 million exposed) and South East (around 2.3 million patients exposed). There are zero percent patients in North East who face high levels of air pollution, the report finds.

The regions with the most patients registered at GP practices that exceed WHO air pollution limits for PM2.5 are:

Region Exceed limit Total Patients Percentage
London 7,516,991 9,967,034 75.4%
East Midlands 2,151,134 5,014,389 42.9%
East of England 2,515,497 6,453,953 39.0%
South East 2,310,372 9,580,110 24.1%
West Midlands 1,458,278 6,233,965 23.4%
South West 864,982 5,785,943 14.9%
North West 699,582 7,735,367 9.0%
Yorkshire and The Humber 374,074 5,722,765 6.5%
North East 0 2,768,683 0.0%
England Total 17,890,910 59,262,209 30.2%

According to a statement from Polly Billington, UK100 director, “GP surgeries in Barrow in Furness, Lowestoft, Penzance, Ipswich and Portsmouth have the worst levels in the country of pollution. Some of the most vulnerable groups of people including young children and older people will walk to their GP, often to get help with respiratory conditions like asthma and bronchitis. We need urgent action from the Government with a new Clean Air Act passed by parliament to tackle toxic fumes.”

Professor Dame Parveen Kumar, who chairs the British Medical Association's board of science, in a statement said, “It is a shocking state of affairs that this invisible killer is still not taken seriously enough by policy makers. The Government needs to look at evidence like that by UK100 and ensure the Environment Bill has legally enforceable air quality limits that meet WHO guidelines and give councils adequate powers and funding to restrict air pollution.”

Coming up is the Clean Air Summit that is soon to be hosted in London on 14 February. It would be attended by London Mayor Sadiq Khan. He said in a statement, “Our toxic air is a national health crisis, contributing to tens of thousands of premature deaths across the UK every year. Air pollution harms the lung growth and respiratory health of our children, and is also linked to asthma, cancer and dementia. I'm proud that London has taken positive action by cleaning up our bus and taxi fleet, encouraging clean air innovation, establishing the largest air quality monitoring network of any major city and, starting in April this year, introducing the world's first 24/7 Ultra Low Emission Zone in central London.”


Table 2: Ten GP Surgeries with worst levels of PM2.5 air pollution in England

Name Post Code Local Authority Region NUMBER OFPATIENTS PM2.5
Atkinson Health Centre LA14 2LR Barrow-in-Furness North West 4,714 16.85
Norwood Medical Centre LA14 5ES Barrow-in-Furness North West 11,026 16.71
Alexandra & Crestview Surgeries NR32 1PL Waveney East of England 15,613 16.18
Duke Street Surgery LA14 1LF Barrow-in-Furness North West 9,645 16.17
The Family Practice LA14 5SL Barrow-in-Furness North West 3,301 16.17
Morrab Surgery TR18 4EL Cornwall South West 11,231 14.92
Dr Solway & Dr Whale Practice IP4 2PZ Ipswich East of England 6,210 14.67
Orchard Medical Practice IP4 2PZ Ipswich East of England 14,534 14.67
The Hanway Group Practice PO1 4ND Portsmouth South East 14,167 14.29
Kirklands Surgery PO3 5AF Portsmouth South East 8,717 14.29

Table 3: Ten local authorities with most numbers of GP patients registered at surgeries that exceed PM2.5 air pollution WHO limits (England only)

Local Authority Don't Exceed Exceed Grand Total Percentage
1. Birmingham 814,961 494,698 1,309,659 37.8%
2. Lambeth 0 416,824 416,824 100.0%
3. Newham 0 393,340 393,340 100.0%
4. Wandsworth 19,334 381,403 400,737 95.2%
5. Brent 39,398 381,293 420,691 90.6%
6. Ealing 79,468 358,264 437,732 81.8%
7. Tower Hamlets 346,830 346,830 346,830 100.0%
8. Southwark 0 339,075 339,075 100.0%
9. Sandwell 17,286 321,169 338,455 94.9%
10. Haringey 0 317,233 317,233 100.0%
Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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