Tell the Government to improve air quality for mental health

17 April 2023

The Government’s draft air quality strategy is being consulted on and Centre for Mental Health is urging people to take part and improve it.

To do this you can complete an online form or email AQSreview@defra.gov.uk by 11.30pm on 21 April.

Centre for Mental Health is calling for four improvements to the draft strategy which we hope you can support in your contribution:

  • Ban the burning of wood and coal in towns and cities
  • Accelerate the switch to renewable forms of energy like wind and solar power
  • Better support electric buses, trains, trams, walking and cycling
  • Discourage transport powered by fossil fuels including diesel and petrol.

Air pollution is directly associated with increased risks of poor mental health outcomes including depression, psychosis and suicide.

A new Imperial College evidence review of 35,000 studies over the last decade concludes: “the most important new finding is evidence related to the impact of air pollution on brain health, including mental health and dementia.”

Airborne pollutants cause and worsen physical ailments including heart, lung and brain diseases which in turn increase risks of mental ill health. In addition to the direct effects of air pollution on mental and physical health, the most significant sources of air pollution are also associated with other mental health risks:

  • By making public spaces unpleasant and dangerous, road traffic in towns and cities reduces social contact between people, increasing mentally unhealthy isolation
  • Dependency on gas and oil for heating, cooking and transport, subject to international price rises, increases poverty which, in turn, worsens mental health
  • Many air pollutants contribute to climate change, increasing the risk of anxiety and other psychological conditions.

Finally, living in poorly insulated homes without affordable heating harms mental health. Measures taken to switch to lower cost renewable forms of energy and better insulation would both reduce pollution and make homes more affordably warm.

It is therefore vital that central and local government do everything in their power to reduce air pollution. However, we fear that the Government’s draft strategy lacks the ambition to do that.

The Imperial College review says that air pollution is created by the “burning of petrochemicals [oil, diesel, plastics], gas and coal, as well as biomass (wood)” and therefore an air quality strategy should focus on reducing these sources.

Our suggestions to improve the ambition and effectiveness of the draft strategy are:

  • Ban the burning of wood and coal in towns and cities: Last year, Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty said that even ‘eco’ domestic wood burners are 450 times more polluting than gas central heating (itself much more polluting than renewably powered electric heating systems), that just 8% of the population burn solid fuel and that two-thirds of them are in urban areas suffering the worst air pollution. In February of this year, an Omnisis poll found a majority of people in the UK favoured a ban, including two-thirds of Londoners and people in other cities. We welcome any additional restrictions on domestic solid fuel burning but note the draft strategy explicitly rules out banning this practice, citing energy security and the high cost of heating. Given that domestic wood burning by just 8% of the population generates the largest source of PM2.5 pollution (27% in 2021 according to the draft strategy) we believe that a ban, at least in urban and suburban areas, should be more seriously considered. Energy security and cost could be addressed by the following demands.
  • Accelerate the switch to renewable forms of energy like wind and solar power: by adjusting planning law that effectively prevents new onshore wind turbines (the cheapest and fastest method of increasing energy generation) and increasing subsidies for insulation and domestic renewable installation, experts believe the UK would reduce costs and increase energy security whilst also reducing air pollution and climate-changing emissions. Low-income households currently burning solid fuel and others in fuel poverty could be prioritised for insulation as well as domestic renewable energy generation and storage schemes to maximise wider benefits.
  • Better support electric buses, trains, trams, walking and cycling: We welcome measures to encourage walking and cycling by investing in infrastructure as active travel has the double benefit of encouraging exercise, proven to improve mental health, whilst reducing air pollution. While the Government’s pledge to spend £3bn over five years appears generous, it is dwarfed by the £27bn road building budget which will increase motorised traffic. A better balance of greater investment in active travel and electric public transport including trains, buses and trams would assist in reducing air pollution and create other benefits.
  • Discourage transport powered by fossil fuels including diesel and petrol: by suspending the fuel duty escalator for 13 years and halving domestic air passenger duty whilst rail travel costs increase substantially, the most polluting forms of travel are being encouraged while healthier options are discouraged. We urge the Government to disincentivise high-polluting fossil-fuelled vehicles and planes with tax, regulation and subsidies in order to encourage a switch to active travel, electric trains, buses and other lower-polluting vehicles.

Remember, you have until 11:30pm on 21 April to complete the consultation form or email AQSreview@defra.gov.uk with your input. We encourage you to use our suggestions above in your submissions.

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