Public Health Impacts and Local Actions

This briefing is to inform public health professionals of the public health impacts of air pollution, its sources and measures available to it. The briefing will help inform discussions between local authority air quality and transport professionals and public health professionals on action to improve air quality. It is also designed to help encourage engagement with local decision-makers and the public to communicate air pollution episodes and long term impacts. Air pollution is an indicator in the Public Health Outcomes Framework (PHOF) and has a significant public health impact in the UK, with an effect equivalent to 29,000 deaths a year.


Poor air quality is a significant public health issue. The burden of particulate air pollution in the UK in 2008 was estimated to be equivalent to nearly 29,000 deaths at typical ages and an associated loss of population life of 340,000 life years lost [1]. It has been estimated that removing all fine particulate air pollution would have a bigger impact on life expectancy in England and Wales than eliminating passive smoking or road traffic accidents [2]. The economic cost from the impacts of air pollution in the UK is estimated at £9-19 billion every year [3]. This is comparable to the economic cost of obesity (over £10 billion) [3].

The importance of the effect of air pollution on public health is reflected by the inclusion of an indicator of mortality associated with air pollution in the Public Health Outcomes Framework. This will enable Directors of Public Health to appropriately prioritise action on air quality in their local area. The Public Health Outcomes Framework indicator reflects the fraction of all-cause adult mortality attributable to long-term exposure to current levels of anthropogenic particulate air pollution. The baseline data for the indicator have been calculated for each upper tier local authority in England based on modelled concentrations of fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) in 2010.  Estimates of the percentage of mortality attributable to long term exposure to particulate air pollution in local authority areas range from around 4% in rural areas to over 8% in cities, where pollution levels are highest.  These calculations of the mortality burden associated with particulate air pollution will be updated periodically.

The Defra and Public Health England Briefing for Directors of Public Health (Air Pollution) toolkit provides details on how local authorities can use the Public Health Outcomes Indicator to specify appropriate mitigation measures to reduce the impact of both short term and long term exposure of air pollution. The guide emphasises the importance of communication and engagement amongst all relevant local stakeholders on air quality issues.

The main pollutants of concern in the UK are particulate matter (PM), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and ground level ozone (O3). Other important air pollutants relevant to public health include sulphur dioxide (SO2), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) and ammonia (NH3). This briefing is concerned mainly with fine particulate matter (PM2.5) as it has the biggest impact on public health and is the pollutant on which the PHOF indicator is based. Information on other pollutants is available from the .GOV.UK website.  

Further Information 

UK Compliance Study Action Plans

Air Pollution in the UK 2015

[1] The Mortality Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution in the United Kingdom.  The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) (2010) 

[2] Comparing estimated risks for air pollution with risks for other health effects, Miller and Hurley, IOM (2006) (PDF, 2.22MB, 50 pages)

[3] Air Pollution: Action in a changing climate  (PDF, 2.76MB, 24 pages)

 Clapp, Lynette (Defra) 
 Mark Chapman
 24/04/2013 16:57
James Bellinger