As people get older, their lungs function less effectively, in some cases leading to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a group of lung conditions such as bronchitis and emphysema that cause breathing difficulties.
Researchers have discovered that air pollution can accelerate the onset of COPD by ageing the lungs considerably over a period of decades. They estimate that long-term exposure to air containing five micrograms of tiny particulate pollution per cubic metre ages the lungs by two years.
With two-thirds of the UK population living in areas containing ten micrograms per cubic metre or more, the analysis indicates the average set of lungs will age by more four years during a person’s lifetime.
Professor Tobias Welte, from Hannover University in Germany, said: “This study shows that exposure to polluted air seriously harms human health by reducing life expectancy and making people more prone to developing chronic lung disease.
“Access to clean air is a fundamental need and right for all citizens in Europe ... we must continue to fight for the right to breathe clean air.”
Dr Penny Woods, the chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “Living with a lung condition can leave you less capable of work and at a greater risk of an early death – a vicious circle which simply has to be broken.
“We need politicians to step up and protect their constituents from toxic air. It’s time our country’s air quality health crisis was taken seriously with the introduction of clean-air zones in the most polluted cities.”
The UK has consistently breached EU air pollution limits in recent years and the High Court has ruled three times that the government must do more to curb nitrogen dioxide levels – much of which comes from traffic and diesel fumes in particular.
Toxic fumes at levels seen on Scottish streets caused mainly by transport are responsible for more than 2,500 early deaths every year, according to Friends of the Earth Scotland.
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent years, but air pollution continues to shorten lives, which is why we are taking concerted action to tackle it.”
The spokesman added: “We are already investing £3.5 billion to clean up our air, while our clean air strategy has been commended by the World Health Organisation.”
The research also included academics from the University of Leicester and was published in the European Respiratory Journal.
It came a day after a separate study by King’s College London warned that air pollution could shorten the life of a child living in a UK city by seven months on average.
The Birmingham study is the first time new government guidance on “mortality burdens” of air pollution has been applied in practice in a large city area.
An eight-year-old child born in 2011 may die between two to seven months early if exposed over their lifetime to projected future pollution concentrations, researchers studying Birmingham found.
It is the first time new government guidance on “mortality burdens” of air pollution has been applied in practice in a large city area.
It was last month revealed motorists in Edinburgh face the worst traffic queues in the country, with a report revealing the Scottish capital was the most congested in the UK.
Figures released by sat nav manufacturer TomTom found drivers spend as much as 40 per cent longer on the city’s choked roads during the average rush hour journey compared to the equivalent outside peak road use times.
Edinburgh topped the UK list ahead of London, Bournemouth, Hull and Belfast, placing it in the top 30 cities for worldwide congestion.