More than half of older people in England are living in areas with dangerous levels of harmful air pollution, a report has warned.
Around six million people aged 65 and over live in places where particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution exceeds World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended levels, research for Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation found.
That means 59% of over-65s, particularly those who suffer from lung conditions, are at risk of breathing difficulties, asthma attacks or flare-ups of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) because of the pollution where they live, the charities said.
The report also warned that 4,382 care homes, more than a quarter (26%) of the total in England, were in areas with toxic air.
In 36 local authorities, every care home is in an area suffering from a polluted environment.
Nearly 3,000 medical centres in England – with 37% of all GP surgeries and 29% of hospitals – are in areas where PM2.5 is above recommended levels.
So too are a third of English schools and colleges (31%), which also puts children’s growing and vulnerable lungs at risk, the charities warn.
The PM2.5 fine particle pollution comes from sources such as traffic fumes, vehicles and wood burners.
It can penetrate deep into the lungs and even the blood, increase breathing problems, heart and lung diseases and lung cancer, and leads to thousands of early deaths a year, while recent research has also linked it to dementia.
The research mapped population estimates against local authorities that had levels of PM2.5 breaching WHO recommendations in 2019.
There is no safe level of PM2.5 but the WHO recommends that concentrations should not exceed 10 micrograms per metre cubed on average in the year, half the current legal limit in the UK, of 20 micrograms.
The campaign groups are calling for a national health protection plan for England to guard against toxic air, and stronger air quality laws in line with the WHO limits for PM2.5 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to match Scotland where they are already in law.
Governments across the UK should provide funding and guidance for traffic reduction measures around care homes, schools and GP surgeries, and a boost to walking and cycling, including more safe cycling paths, bans on pavement parking and financial support for buying e-bikes.
There should be programmes to train health professionals on how to protect patients from air pollution, and for schools to protect pupils.
And a national public health campaign should provide advice on how people can protect themselves and guidance on reducing their contribution to the problem, the charities urged.
Sarah Woolnough, chief executive of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “It is unacceptable that millions of over-65s, who are more likely to suffer from lung disease, are being exposed to toxic levels of air pollution in places where they are supposed to feel safe.
“As we get older, we rely more on health and social care services but we can’t move all the care homes, hospitals and GP surgeries to areas with better air quality.
“The Government must produce a national health protection plan to safeguard people from the invisible threat of air pollution and set out stronger air quality laws in line with WHO guidelines.
“Our parents and grandparents have sacrificed so much during the Covid-19 crisis, they surely deserve to have clean air to breathe.”
Catherine Bazell, 76, is from north London and has asthma and bronchiectasis, a long-term lung condition that causes coughing and breathlessness.
Six years ago, she said, high pollution exacerbated her breathing conditions and she was rushed to hospital where she later suffered two minor strokes.
She added: “I’ve lived in London all my life and I think growing up in such a polluted, smoky city is why I developed asthma.
“While there’s no longer the coal-burning smog from when I was a child, the pollution from all the cars, buses and lorries really affects my lung conditions.
“When I go for a walk where I live, it can feel like I can’t get a deep enough breath and that I’m struggling for oxygen.”