NEWS: Data and technology must drive efforts on pollution, says chief medical officer

The UK’s most senior doctor has urged for joint action to tackle pollution, calling for more research into the ill health impacts and better use of data and technology to direct action.

Professor Dame Sally Davies's ninth independent report as Chief medical officer makes in total 21 recommendations to government, the NHS, Public Health England, and other agencies, for more action to improve the health system's response to all types of pollution.

Among the recommendations are for Clinical Commissioning Groups to analyse local air quality monitoring data for breaches of air pollution standards. These should be published alongside the local hospital data for impacts on admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

Davies also calls for better integration of research and monitoring data so that it can tell us more about the impact of pollution on our bodies and to identify vulnerable groups.

“We need to use health data with a wider range of health outcome. In other words, not just focusing on mortality, but using data that capture the full health consequence of pollution on morbidity, mental health impacts, and impacts on quality of life.”

“We must start to address pollution as disease prevention,” says Davies.

Existing evidence shows that air pollution contributes to 40,000 excess deaths each year, leading to a total annual cost to the economy of around £27 billion, the report says.

In London alone, PM2.5 and NO2 in 2010 have an associated mortality burden of £1.4 billion and £2.3 billion, respectively.

But in the annual report, titled Health impacts of all pollution - what do we know? she says she’s been ‘struck by the lack of evidence we have in this field’.

“At the moment we do not have the systems in place to effectively monitor, understand, and act on data about the health impacts of pollution. The clarion call from this report is therefore to create these systems so that we can determine effective actions,” she said.

“The data and information revolution is happening across biomedicine and has the potential to improve the health of the public. Pollution and human health is no different: we have a real opportunity to capitalise on the use of data to better understand these health impacts,” she added.

“Facilitated by new, especially mobile, technologies, there has been a recent growth in citizen science. This has a role in data collection and knowledge generation around the impacts of pollution on human health.”

London has a mortality burden of £1.4 billion caused by PM2.5 and N02 polluting particulates in the air

However, the report came under attack for putting too much of the burden of delivering change onto local authorities and public health professionals, effectively giving central government a ‘free pass’.

Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) said: “Despite the almost universal criticism of the Government's NO2 strategy, and the successful legal challenges mounted against the Government by ClientEarth, we are bemused that the report considers the Government's strategy document to be "good”.

“CIEH does not support this view, and considers the Government's present approach to this vital issue as being wholly inadequate.”

Davies' recommendations for the government are for it to create ‘increasingly stringent’ standards for air pollution over the next five years and to consider ‘new ways’ of tackling the issue, pointing to new solar assisted cleaning technology undergoing trials in China. Eight 8 full scale Solar-Assisted Large-Scale Cleaning Systems could reduce PM2.5 in the Beijing urban area by 15% in 30 hours, says the report.

Health impacts of all pollution, what do we know? report was published on 2 March and can be read here