Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution

23 February 2016

In response to growing concerns about the health effects of air pollution, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) set up a working party with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) to review the evidence of how air pollution affects health across the lifecourse, and to provide recommendations for how to tackle the issue.

The Royal Colleges published their report ‘Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution’ in February 2016, 60 years after the landmark 1956 Clean Air Act.

Key findings

The report concluded that air pollution represented one of the most significant threats to human health and that, at the time, outdoor air pollution contributed to around 40,000 deaths annually in the UK.

The report set out the evidence that exposure to air pollution damages a person’s health from conception – highlighting evidence of impact on the developing brain – through to old age, with links to long-term conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and cancer. It emphasised that 'the most vulnerable suffer the most harm', with people living in more deprived communities more likely to be exposed to air pollution, and more vulnerable to its effects due to pre-existing medical conditions.

It was estimated in the report that health problems caused by air pollution costed the UK individuals, society, businesses and health services over £20bn every year. It further criticised the poor regulation of diesel emissions.


The Royal Colleges made recommendations to tackle and reduce the harmful effects of air pollution. These included:

  • tougher regulations on polluters, such as reliable emissions testing for cars
  • immediate local authority action when air pollution rises above safe limits, including road closures to reduce traffic
  • central and local government tracking and publication of air pollution levels
  • further research into the impact of indoor air pollutants on health and the economic damage of air pollution, to inform policy.


Shortly after, in March 2016, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn referenced RCP’s estimate of the economic cost to the UK when questioning Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons on the UK’s failure to comply with international law on air pollution. Following its publication, the report informed much of the debate on the need for legislative action to address air pollution.

The Conservative government referenced the report in its 2017 Air Quality Plan for the UK. However, when RCP published its 2-year progress report in 2018, they criticised the 2017 Air Quality Plan as a ‘missed opportunity’ and called for further government action, including the expansion of clean air zones in urban areas and a new Clean Air Act to more coherently tackle the main current sources of UK air pollution.


Royal College of Physicians.
Every breath we take: The lifelong impact of air pollution.
Royal College of Physicians of London; 2016.

House of Commons.
Engagements; 16 March 2016, Volume 607.
Hansard: 2016.

Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and Department for Transport.
Air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in UK (2017).
UK government; 2017.

Royal College of Physicians.
Reducing air pollution in the UK: Progress report 2018.
Royal College of Physicians of London; 2018.