James Cant: And breathe – there’s an air of hope over pollution

James Cant, director, BHF Scotland.
James Cant, director, BHF Scotland.
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Scotland has made great strides this year in cleaning up our act on the air that we breathe.

The Scottish Government has announced the ­country’s first Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in Glasgow – LEZs are designed to eliminate air ­pollution hotspots and improve health.

I’m pleased that British Heart Foundation (BHF) ­Scotland has joined the Cleaner Air for Scotland Governance Group, which is overseeing our ­country’s aim to have the cleanest air in Europe by ­driving forward Scottish ­Government strategy on air pollution.

Our addition strengthens the group and brings a wider ­perspective on the health impacts of air pollution. No other organisation is doing more to research the impact of air pollution on heart health than the BHF. We’re funding £1.7m of pioneering science at our Centre of Research Excellence at the University of Edinburgh that has already proven the links between poor air and cardiovascular disease.

It’s clear to me that the way forward to achieve the ­Cleaner Air for Scotland aims is for all interested parties to work together and commit to ­delivering the strategy.

In September last year, the Scottish Government, in its Programme for Government, committed to the introduction of LEZs in Scotland’s four biggest cities – Glasgow, ­Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee – by 2020. I recognise that some campaigners perceive that Glasgow’s LEZ, which introduces a phased approach to limiting bus emissions from the end of this year, isn’t ambitious enough. But I’d argue that the introduction of Scotland’s first LEZ is a huge step to all our major ­cities having cleaner air, and one that can inform future similar actions.

Last month, BHF Scotland informed the Capital’s people about the dangers of air ­pollution at its exhibition at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Visitors to Summerhall took a stroll along our fictitious road, Air Street, where they learned that it is polluted by nanoparticles released from vehicle exhausts and work their way through the lungs and into the bloodstream. They further heard that BHF-funded research has found that such nanoparticles can not only reach the bloodstream of healthy people, but can raise the risk of heart attack and stroke in vulnerable people and could worsen ­coronary heart disease, the main cause of heart attack.

We discussed the scale of the problem: around 40,000 deaths in the UK each year are linked to outdoor air pollution. In Scotland, a figure of 2,500 is bandied around. I don’t believe that figure is robust and would urge people to look at the ­bigger picture: if you’re one of the 685,000 people in Scotland living with cardiovascular ­disease, every breath you take can increase your risk of suffering a heart attack. No level of exposure can be seen to be safe. Air pollution is harmful to everyone.

So where is Scotland’s Air Street? Environmental ­campaigners have named 38 zones where air quality standards are regularly broken. Scotland’s most polluted street is Hope Street in Glasgow and the capital’s Salamander Street is another culprit.

Given the large number of people living with heart ­disease, and the likelihood of their exposure to air pollution, UK governments must do ­everything they can to meet European Commission targets as soon as possible to improve air quality and ­protect our hearts.

Health bodies, transportation providers, environmentalists, scientists and local authorities need to work in partnership with the Scottish Government to identify robust measures to tackle many of the causes of harmful air pollution including our congested roads. We’ve started on that journey and I think we’re ­making good progress.

You can learn more about the quality of the air in your town at www.scottishairquality.co.uk

James Cant, director, BHF Scotland.