Cleaner air in West Midlands could prevent 2,000 deaths a year, study finds

<span>‘Still a significant problem’: particles from sources hundreds of kilometres away can be found Birmingham’s air</span><span>Photograph: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images</span>
‘Still a significant problem’: particles from sources hundreds of kilometres away can be found Birmingham’s airPhotograph: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

A study has revealed that cleaning up the air in the West Midlands could prevent the early deaths of about 2,000 people a year.

If the region were to meet World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for air pollution, it could also avoid 2,000 new asthma cases, 770 new cases of heart disease, 170 new lung cancers and 650 strokes annually, the study found.

The researchers also looked at how much money would be saved if the region had met WHO guidelines in 2021 and then stuck with them for the next 20 years. The main gain would be in fewer cases of long-term diseases, mainly asthma. This would save an estimated £285m for the NHS and about £167m for social care. The broader economy would also gain with fewer days off work, creating a further benefit of £175m, on top of the obvious improvement in the quality of life for thousands of people.

Dr Suzanne Bartington, of the University of Birmingham, who led the study, said: “We wanted to gain a better understanding of how the health and economic impacts of poor air quality are distributed across the West Midlands. This will help inform a place-based approach to improving air quality and reducing health inequalities.”

Dr James Hall, who led on health economics in the study, said: “The disease burden attributable to air pollution reflects regional patterns of socioeconomic deprivation. The highest burdens are within densely populated urban areas, namely wards within Sandwell and Birmingham authority areas. If we achieved WHO guidelines, these same areas of deprivation would experience the greatest benefits.”

Bartington said the health impacts of air pollution in the West Midlands were mainly attributable to long-term exposure to particle pollution. Other members of the University of Birmingham team are looking at where this particle pollution comes from.

For more than a year, Dr Deepchandra Srivastava and colleagues collected particle pollution from two locations in the city. One was in the south, on the university campus, and the second was next to a primary school in Ladywood, close to the city centre.

Each day particles were collected in filters. Back at the laboratory the filters were carefully cut into sections and each part was sent for a different chemical analysis.

Data so far shows that sulphur particles have reduced over the last two decades, as coal-fired power plants have closed and regulations were tightened on diesel and petrol used in cars and lorries.

Particle pollution can remain in the air for a week or more. The Birmingham team found particles from sources hundreds of miles away, including fuel oil from shipping. Much of the particle burden came from chemical reactions between different pollutants, including ammonia, which is mainly from farming outside the region.

Srivastava explained about sources within the region: “Our preliminary analysis shows that the main local sources of particle pollution within the West Midlands include dust from the wear of vehicle tyres, brakes and roads and wood burning.”

Prof Roy Harrison, who was a co-author of the health impacts study, said: “Initiatives such as the clean air zone, introduced in 2021, have had an impact on the amount of nitrogen dioxide pollution in the city centre. Across the region as a whole, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter pollution is still a significant problem, which we need to tackle with urgency.”