Latest research strengthens case that early exposure to pollution affects long-term health

May 16, 2018, University of Southampton
Latest research strengthens case that early exposure to pollution affects long-term health
The study investigated the long-term adverse health effects of early life exposure to air pollution. Credit: University of Southampton

Research led by the University of Southampton has shown increasing evidence that exposure to air pollution in early life has detrimental long-term health consequences.

The study, published in BMJ Open, found direct geographical correlations between consumption in the 1950s and deaths caused by respiratory and cardiovascular disease, as well as certain cancers, in England and Wales over the subsequent six decades.

Led by Professor David Phillips from the Medical Research Council's Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, the University of Southampton worked closely with the University of Portsmouth and the University of Oxford to carry out the research.

The data presented in this study also has implications for the long-term health of the populations of countries that still depend on large amounts of coal for their domestic markets.

This includes newly industrialised countries such as India or China, where coal is a major energy source, and resource-poor countries, where open fires and the consequent exposure of mothers and young children to pollutants is widespread.

Professor Stephen Holgate, Medical Research Council Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, said: "We have long known that from the domestic burning of coal throughout the last 250 years has had devastating effects on human health. This is both during severe air pollution episodes during the famous smogs and fogs, but also over the long term with high background exposures, especially effecting the lungs and cardiovascular system.

"With the impending release of the Government's new Air Pollution Plan, these findings emphasise the importance of putting health above any other interests in protecting future generations from the toxic effects of current and unacceptable levels of air pollution in the UK."

The paper, titled 'Evaluating the long-term consequences of air pollution in : geographical correlations between coal consumption in 1951/1952 and current mortality in England and Wales', centres on data from the former Ministry of Fuel and Power that recorded the quantities of solid fuels burnt annually between May 1951 and May 1952 in 1,145 different locations.

Studies published in the 1950s and 1960s suggested that there were links between the amounts of coal used in domestic fires with both childhood respiratory disease and many major causes of adult deaths.

By the middle of the 20th century, more than 200 million tonnes of coal were being used per year in England and Wales. The Great Smog of London in 1952 killed an estimated 12 000 people and led to the first UK Clean Air Act being passed in 1956 to reduce coal consumption.

It is not known, however, whether these after effects have persisted. As such, this research is the first project to investigate the long term adverse health effects of early life exposure to air pollution across a period of more than 60 years.

"The Clean Air Act 1956 had a dramatic effect in reducing these avoidable causes of death and chronic illness. What we now have learnt from this study is that pollution exposure of infants and children from King Coal prior to the Clean Air Act is still shortening the lives of people today, more than 60 years later, even when current exposures to particulate were taken into account.

"As well as acute effects, the study emphasises that of pregnant mothers and our children to air pollutants has long term impacts across a person's lifetime."

Explore further: Household air pollution linked to cardiovascular disease risk

More information: David I W Phillips et al. Evaluating the long-term consequences of air pollution in early life: geographical correlations between coal consumption in 1951/1952 and current mortality in England and Wales, BMJ Open (2018). DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-018231

Related Stories

Household air pollution linked to cardiovascular disease risk

April 5, 2018
Exposure to household air pollution from using wood or coal for cooking and heating is associated with higher risk of death from heart attack and stroke, according to new research published in the Journal of the American ...

Air pollution may shorten telomeres in newborns

January 24, 2018
A study conducted before and after the 2004 closure of a coal-burning power plant in Tongliang, China, found children born before the closure had shorter telomeres than those conceived and born after the plant stopped polluting ...

Air pollution below EPA standards linked with higher death rates

June 3, 2015
A new study by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that death rates among people over 65 are higher in zip codes with more fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) than in those with lower levels ...

Recommended for you

If you've got MS, exercise means much more than moving

August 21, 2018
For people with multiple sclerosis, the meaning of exercise stretches way beyond health and keeping fit, shows new research revealing what life's really like with the condition.

Simple leg exercises could reduce impact of sedentary lifestyle on heart and blood vessels

August 21, 2018
A sedentary lifestyle can cause an impairment of the transport of blood around the body, which increases the risk of disease in the heart and blood vessels. New research published in Experimental Physiology suggests that ...

Your office may be affecting your health

August 20, 2018
Workers in open office seating had less daytime stress and greater daytime activity levels compared to workers in private offices and cubicles, according to new research led by the University of Arizona.

Healthy diet linked to healthy cellular aging in women

August 20, 2018
Eating a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in added sugar, sodium and processed meats could help promote healthy cellular aging in women, according to a new study published in the American Journal ...

Balanced advice needed to address 'screen time' for children, study shows

August 20, 2018
Parents, health professionals and educators need clear and balanced information to help manage young children's use of mobile touch-screen devices in Australia, new research by Curtin University has found.

Sitting for long hours found to reduce blood flow to the brain

August 20, 2018
A team of researchers with Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K. has found evidence of reduced blood flow to the brain in people who sit for long periods of time. In their paper published in the Journal of Applied ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.