Last reviewed 28 September 2021

Greater than obesity and smoking, air pollution is the UK’s largest environmental health risk, leading to some 40,000 early deaths each year and costing the UK economy £20 billion annually.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has now completed a review of the guideline air quality levels it set in 2006 and has published much stricter limits — a move welcomed by the British Safety Council (BSC), which has immediately called on the Government to set robust legal limits in the UK.

The WHO has halved the air quality guideline limit for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and has slashed by 75% the limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). In comparison, the current legal limits in the UK for these pollutants are, the BSC believes, disturbingly high.

“While toxic air is potentially harmful to everyone”, it points out, “the risk of exposure is greater for outdoor workers, for whom the street is their workplace. This means ambient air pollution must be fully recognised as the occupational health issue it is.”

Given that unsafe air is not something society should simply accept, the BSC argues for changes to the Environment Bill currently being considered by Parliament.

Chief Executive Mike Robinson said: “As health effects have been found even at the lowest levels of PM2.5 that have been measured, and well below the previous WHO Guidelines of 10 µg/m3, we welcome these stricter WHO limits, which, if implemented in UK law, should help protect outdoor workers from toxic air.”

For many outdoor workers in the UK, he went on, the reality is that drawing breath during their working day is shortening their life. For them, ambient air pollution has turned the simple, human act of breathing into a deadly occupational hazard.