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Southampton experts urge PM to tell party not to discredit science on toxic air

Two leading Southampton researchers have signed a letter asking the Prime Minister to tell his colleagues to stop discrediting facts about air pollution.

Professor Sir Stephen Holgate and Dr Matt Loxham co-signed the letter. They are both part of the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre.

It said some politicians do not believe in the science and have supported conspiracy theorists.

‘Disassociate from these views’

The letter describes how world-leading UK research has shown that toxic air contributes to the development of asthma, strokes, heart attacks, cancer and dementia.

“A collapse in trust in the scientific process would be a disaster. We urge you to disassociate from these views and in no uncertain terms to tell your party colleague to not repeat or endorse them,” the letter said.

The group of 36 academics, including Professor Holgate and Dr Loxham, urged the PM “to join us in making the case for urgent action on air pollution”.

Both Professor Holgate and Dr Loxham have conducted various research studies into the effects of toxic air on health.

‘Clear misunderstanding’

Professor Holgate has long history of research into the health effects of air pollution. This includes research into associations between airway damage and inflammation. His research has also investigated exposure to diesel combustion and ambient particulate matter. It has led to changes in government legislation, and national and regional policy.

He also gave key evidence in the 2020 inquest of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. She was the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a factor in the cause of her death in 2013.

Professor Holgate said: “There is a clear misunderstanding of how air pollution damages health. Rarely it is a primary driver of illness and death, as was the case with Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah. Her asthma was initiated by air pollution, and her asthma attacks and death were driven by this. She was highly unusual in having strong genetic drivers of her disease.

“Usually, like obesity, air pollution contributes to the acceleration of non-communicable diseases. But these have other factors feeding into causation such as diet, lifestyle and socioeconomic factors.

“Air pollution is nevertheless a major contributor to these diseases. The only reason that we were able to link Ella's death to pollution is that, quite fortuitously, there was a government air quality monitoring station close to her home, and the local council had also set up their own monitors independently.

“So, in contrast to mean/average pollution levels that are modelled, what we are lacking to attribute air pollution directly to illness and death is a more granular assessment of what we are all exposed to locally where we live work and play.”

‘Extremely large body of evidence’

Dr Loxham has investigated the impact of poor air quality in underground railways and shipping docks.

He said: “There is now an extremely large body of evidence which shows that air pollution makes a significant contribution to the shortening of lives, and to chronic diseases which impact on quality of life.

“There are a number of reasons why individual cases are almost never ascribed to air pollution. Not least of these is the fact that air pollution exposure combines with other factors to accelerate and exacerbate diseases known to be associated with air pollution.

“However, this should not be taken as representing uncertainty or doubt about whether air pollution exposure is important in the health of the public. Nor should it be taken as uncertainty about whether improving air quality will result in health benefits.

“The case for the need to improve air quality is clear.”


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