Two years after the World Health Organization labelled air Pollution a global “public health emergency”, and the House of Commons environment committee used the same phrase to describe the situation in the UK, new evidence shows that breathing unsafe air causes a loss of intelligence, particularly in the over-64s. The research, carried out in China, showed that test scores declined when people breathed toxins including nitrogen dioxide and particulate, with language ability more affected than maths. This news, though alarming, is unlikely to change anything straight away. China has been engaged in a “war against pollution” for five years, while governments and policymakers around the world already have ample evidence that pollution is extremely harmful. Top of the list of dangers is the way it worsens heart and lung diseases including asthma and emphysema, while one study last year suggested a link to dementia.
The problem is both global and national: urbanisation and increasing car use mean that pollution is on the rise internationally, while the UK government is under huge pressure to clean up air that has broken EU legal limits for the past eight years. Western capitals do not feature in the WHO’s lists of the planet’s most polluted cities, and levels of most pollutants in the UK have fallen (though not ammonia, a byproduct of farming). But increased scientific understanding of the damage to health caused by gases such as nitrogen oxides makes inexcusable the complacency of which we have seen so much, both under the current Conservative government and its coalition predecessor.
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