Health should be at the centre of the Environment Bill

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After a year of lockdowns to tackle the pandemic, it would seem odd to accuse the government of not prioritising our health, but that’s the case when it comes to air quality and the Environment Bill.

The flagship environmental legislation is ambling slowly through the house, and the second half of it returned to the House of Commons in late May, almost two years after a version of it was first published in October 2019.

Geraint Davies MP Photograph: UK Parliament

While later versions of the Bill refer directly to human health, the lack of urgency and the lack of ambition within the Bill to tackle deaths caused by air pollution, for example, shows health is still not central to the legislation.

Yet more and more of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ policies are shown to be at the helm of health outcomes in the country. Covid-19 is just another example, with its origin linked to food contamination and its health impacts and spread made worse by air pollution.

Many studies into air pollution have shown that a small increase in long-term exposure to the pollutant PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) leads to a large increase in the Covid-19 death rate, which is no surprise as the lungs and other organs have already been weakened. Others suggest that short-term exposure to pollution increases the risk of developing Covid-19.

As the primary transmission of the virus is airborne it’s not surprising that alongside advice to wash hands, the government has prescribed ventilation to help people protect themselves from catching or spreading the virus.

However, at this point, it’s not the Secretary of State for the Environment responding, but the Health Secretary, and in so many health issues this is the case, and the government’s health response comes too late.

It’s why we need a joined-up government approach to tackle air pollution, with early preventative measures that include ambitious targets, government campaigns and giving people information to call for local action and to make the right decisions.

In his Prevention of Future Deaths Report following the inquest into the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, Coroner Philip Barlow called for maximum levels of particulate air pollution to be lowered in the UK to be in line with World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) guideline annual mean concentration of 10 µg/m3. He also called for air pollution monitors and for steps to be taken to ensure medical professionals are well trained and give the right advice.

The report was in follow-up to Barlow’s ruling, in December 2020, that air pollution from traffic was a cause of death for Ella, in February 2013.

The coroner’s verdict was also noted in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee air quality report in February 2021, which also called for legally binding WHO air quality limits in light of the fact that, outside of the pandemic, air pollution causes 64,000 premature deaths and costs our economy £20 billion each year.

We can’t afford to delay any longer, and with COP26 on the horizon and air pollution costing seven million lives globally each year, the government must take action, set an example and put enforceable WHO limits at the heart of the Environment Bill.

After a year where the NHS has been under immense strain, the government should reshape how we deliver health policy and refocus towards preventative measures, rather than firefighting illness, which goes hand and hand with planetary health.

The Environment Bill is the UK’s opportunity to show itself as a world leader in environmental policy which links human and planetary health. The stakes are high so we must be bold to build back better, greener and healthier.

Geraint Davies is the Labour (Co-Op) Member of Parliament for Swansea West. He is a member of the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution.

For more information see:
Environment Bill
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report: Air Quality and coronavirus: a glimpse of a different future or business as usual
All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution
Geraint Davies MP
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