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Climate change and health inequalities: the hidden link

Written by: Kathy Scott - 13th March 2023

I’ve recently been pondering the link between net zero and health inequalities – which at first glance seem like two separate issues, but are actually more intertwined than you might initially think. Health inequalities are ‘unfair and avoidable differences in health across the population, and between different groups within society. These include how long people are likely to live, the health conditions they may experience and the care that is available to them’ and are influenced by the wider determinants of health, the conditions in which we are born, grow up and live. Net Zero refers to balancing off the amount of carbon gases we emit into the atmosphere with the amount removed, so we slow down the rate at which the climate is changing.

At first glance, these two issues might seem to be disconnected, but when you consider that the impacts of climate change often make existing health inequalities worse, and vice versa, then there is a very clear link.  For example, people living in deprived areas are often more likely to live near industrial sites or busy roads, which can be major sources of air pollution with factories, motorways and transport hubs emitting pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulphur dioxide, which can have negative effects on human health. They may not have the resources to protect themselves from the exposure to air pollution, for example with effective double glazing or easy access to green spaces or other areas where the air is cleaner. And, finally, people living in areas of high deprivation are more likely to suffer from pre-existing health conditions, poor nutrition and other factors that may weaken their immune systems and make them more vulnerable to the effects of pollution.

It clearly isn’t fair that people who are already experiencing inequalities in health should also be more affected by the impact of net zero and that in itself is a compelling reason to reduce carbon emissions and associated air pollution. By reducing air pollution, we would also reduce some of the associated ill health, reducing demand on the NHS and decreasing costs. For example, we know about the impacts of air pollution on physical health, with pollution affecting the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, affecting fertility, as well as causing cancer but there is also evidence showing that toxic air worsens mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, increases the incidence of depression and anxiety disorders and may be linked to dementia.

Air pollution is costly in both human terms, (it accounts for around 29,000 deaths per year in the UK), to the NHS and social care (analysis suggests the cost could be as high as £157m per year) and to the wider economy. According to a report published by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in 2016, the cost of air pollution to the UK’s health and social care system was estimated to be around £20bn per year. This figure includes the cost of treating illnesses related to air pollution, as well as the cost of lost productivity due to illness and premature death.

So, the prize in terms of improved lives and life chances, improved health and reduced pressure on the health system is huge and can be achieved with fairly small changes to pollution levels, which is one of the reasons why the NHS has set itself stretching targets for reaching net zero. Innovation plays a crucial role in helping the NHS achieve this goal. In the AHSN Network we are supporting innovators both to develop innovations that make a difference to the net zero agenda and also to reduce the carbon emissions of their companies. And we are supporting our NHS colleagues to take up new technologies and ways of working, for example, we have supported work to reduce the use of blue asthma inhalers, funded NHS staff to identify and implement projects that make a difference to their organisation’s carbon impact, supported the sharing of best practice and helped trusts collaborate around, for example, greener energy. As I said, the prize is huge and we’re very glad to be supporting such an important agenda that can make such a difference to people’s lives.

If you want to know more about the work of the AHSN Network around Net Zero and the support we can offer to innovators please get in touch.