More than 2,000 GP surgeries, clinics and hospitals are in areas which breach safe pollution limits, with people breathing “toxic air” as they seek medical care, analysis suggests.
Some 2,220 GP practices and 248 hospitals across Britain are in areas where average levels of tiny particle pollution known as “particulate matter” or PM2.5 are above limits recommended by the World Health Organisation.
These particles, the majority of which come from road transport in urban areas, are linked to causing and worsening diseases including asthma, coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.
And evidence is emerging of impacts on low birth weight, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the study by the British Lung Foundation and Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants (CERC) said.
Dangerously dirty air around health centres is a problem in the biggest cities such as London and Birmingham, but also in places ranging from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, to Penzance, Cornwall.
Major children’s hospitals Great Ormond Street in London, and Birmingham’s Children Hospital are in dangerously polluted areas.
In England, one in three GP practices and one in four hospitals are located in areas that exceed the safe levels, according to the study, which analysed the postcodes of 9,988 NHS health centres against data for PM2.5 levels.
In Wales, 54 GP surgeries and three hospitals are in polluted areas, with Cardiff seeing the highest levels of PM2.5, and in Scotland three healthcare sites are above the recommended limit, in Aberdeen, Falkirk and Berwickshire.
The British Lung Foundation (BLF) warned that air pollution is an urgent threat for the 12 million people in the UK with lung conditions such as asthma, and called on the Government to take swift action.
BLF director of policy Alison Cook said: “It’s unacceptable that vulnerable people with NHS appointments are being exposed to toxic air that could make their health worse.”
The UK currently meets legal limits for PM2.5 but these are more than twice as high as the recommended ceiling from the WHO.
The Government should put the WHO limit for PM2.5 into UK law in the forthcoming Environment Bill, the charity urged.
Charging clean air zones should be brought into cities and towns with the dirtiest air to curb polluting traffic, where possible including hospital and other health centres.
And there should be greater investment in air quality monitoring for places where vulnerable groups gather, such as hospitals.
Reducing pollution levels would save hundreds of millions of pounds for the NHS and social care budgets and avoid thousands of cases of asthma, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Ms Cook said: “It can’t be right that hospital staff and GPs must care for people in environments that could worsen their symptoms and could be putting them at risk of a whole range of health problems further down the line.”
She said patients are being let down, and it is not the fault of healthcare professionals.
“The ball is now in the Government’s court; we want them to adopt WHO’s limit and ensure we meet it.”
Dr Maria Neira, from WHO, said: “Hospitals and GP surgeries are the lungs and hearts of our health systems.
“No-one should have to be exposed to dirty air when visiting them.”
A spokesman for the Environment Department (Defra) said: “Air pollution is the top environmental risk to human health in the UK, and while air quality has improved significantly since 2010, we recognise there is more to do.
“This is why we are taking comprehensive action through our £3.5 billion plan to reduce harmful emissions and our ambitious new Clean Air Strategy which has been welcomed by the WHO (World Health Organisation).”
And he said: “The forthcoming Environment Bill will include provisions to improve air quality and ensure we leave our precious environment in a better state than we found it.”