top of page

Tackling respiratory effects of air pollution – from science to policy

We have driven new insight into the effects of air pollution and influenced policy, providing evidence for change towards cleaner air.

Key facts

  • Early Southampton trials on toxic levels of everyday pollutants identified their impact on our cells

  • Our research found high levels of metal in underground railway airways and linked these particulates with impact on cells lining the lungs

  • Studies into shipping-related pollution have shown high levels of certain toxic heavy metals in ultrafine particulates


Addressing air pollution

Air pollution is the leading environmental risk factor for ill health. It is associated with nine million deaths worldwide each year. Our research has advanced understanding of these impacts, and how these vary between pollution sources.

Our early research identified how pollutants impact on our cells and lungs. Those studies exposed healthy volunteers to non-toxic levels, and cells to higher concentrations. Everyday pollutants we studied included:

  • Diesel exhaust fumes

  • Particulates (microscopic particles)

  • Ozone

  • Nitrogen dioxide

These data showed impaired cell and lung function, and development of asthma-like symptoms.

Going underground

We built on this and identification of a new type of toxic pollutant (ultrafine particles) to study less well-known particulate sources (published here). With colleagues in the Netherlands, we showed high levels of metal in underground railway particulates. This was linked to changes in the defence mechanisms of cells lining the lungs (published here).

The findings informed a report to Transport for London by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP), into health effects of particulates on the London Underground.

Toxicity in shipping

Southampton is a major port. We’ve harnessed our expertise to address shipping-related pollution affecting our communities.

BRC researcher Dr Matthew Loxham has studied the nature and toxicity of shipping-related particulates. He found high levels of certain toxic heavy metals in ultrafine particulates from shipping. These drive strong inflammatory effects in lung cells. Further work explored how cells handle these pollutants, and their impacts on lung disease.

Our research has been cited in World Health Organisation reports in 2004, 2005 and 2013. It has also influenced policy through Professor Stephen Holgate’s roles including:

  • First chair, COMEAP

  • Chair, DEFRA’s Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards

  • RCP Every Breath We Take (2016) working party; influenced government policy, London Ultra-Low Emission Zone

  • Client Earth legal action

  • UKRI Clean Air Champion (2019)

  • Expert witness to a landmark inquest returning air pollution as a material contributor to the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah

Our future work aims to better understand pollutants' effects on our cells. We will use this and lung exposure studies to develop new diagnostics of, and ways of tackling, pollution-related illness. We intend to build the evidence and tools for cleaner air and health protection in our own city and beyond.

bottom of page