Could air pollution emerge as the next asbestos?

Historically, difficulties in proving a causal link between air pollution and poor health have kept at bay pollution related claims and governments’ accountability. However, this may be about to change. New evidence suggesting that pollution increases the likelihood of COVID-19 infection and death, as well as evidence of a fall in respiratory problems following the sizeable improvement in air quality during lockdown, may make it far easier to make the link and substantiate a claim.

Air pollution and health

The World Health Organisation (WHO) credits 4.2 million deaths worldwide every year to exposure to ambient air pollution, and the UK Government cites poor air quality as “the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK.”

Air pollution takes many forms, but it is the fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which is both human made and naturally occurring, and Nitrogen Dioxide (NO₂), a traffic-related pollutant, which are increasingly in the spotlight.

PM2.5 refers to solid particles or liquid droplets in the air with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (µm) (2.5 µm is one 400th of a millimetre). Exposure to PM2.5 is known to penetrate the respiratory system via inhalation and can exacerbate conditions such as cardiovascular disease or even cause certain respiratory diseases such as asthma.

European legislation sets out a number of requirements to control outdoor concentrations of PM2.5 and other air pollutants. However, it has been reported that levels of NO₂ emissions have been illegally high since 2010 in most urban areas in the UK and many areas have levels of small particles above the limit recommended by the WHO of 10 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m³) of air.

However, claims arising out of injury or illness as result of air pollution remain low. This is due to the difficulty in proving that negligence of an alleged perpetrator led to the exposure which caused the injury.

In 2019, a new inquest was granted into the death of a child, following evidence that the child’s acute respiratory failure and severe asthma may have been linked to nearby pollution. Depending on the outcome of the inquest, this could be the first example of air pollution being officially recorded on a death certificate in the UK.

Such a finding could pave the way for more accountability and therefore more claims. However, the pressure for policy makers to prioritise clean air may actually come from a different source, one only recently identified amid the pandemic.

Link between air pollution and COVID-19

Emerging research and analysis shows “compelling” but not yet conclusive evidence linking air pollution with an increase in coronavirus infections and deaths.

A study in April 2020 at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that a small increase in PM2.5 of 1 μg/m³ of air increases the risk of COVID-19 by 8%.

Research at the University of Birmingham, found “compelling evidence of a positive relationship between air pollution, and particularly [fine particle] concentrations, and Covid-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths.”

In light of this research, it may become easier to establish evidence that an increase in air pollution can be directly attributed to increased vulnerability to respiratory viruses such as COVID-19.

This evidence, coupled with the fluctuations in air pollution seen during the recent nationwide lockdown may strengthen the prospects for claims of poor health directly linked to air pollution and specifically NO₂ emissions from traffic. It was reported that both fine particle and NO₂ pollution fell by up to half in cities during lockdown with traffic falling to 1955 levels.

According to the British Lung Foundation, this dramatic reduction in air pollution saw two million people in the UK with respiratory conditions such as asthma experience reduced symptoms.

This data will put government bodies and multinational companies under increased pressure to ensure pollution levels stay low, not only to help avoid a second peak of infections, but also to minimise the risk of an escalation in legal claims.

However, several UK cities, including Leeds and Manchester, have delayed the implementation of local ‘Clean Air Zones’ - designed to tackle illegal levels of air pollution – citing, ironically, that the restrictions put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted the ability to carry out the necessary consultations. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether authorities will respond to the growing call for greener cities in the wake of COVID-19.

Industry comment

The insurance industry has already seen an increase in personal injury claims related to air pollution. Although not currently at the same level as asbestos or noise induced hearing loss claims, but given ongoing current research this could be about to change.

This is still a developing area, but certainly one for the industry to watch and prepare for. Air pollution has the potential to impact everybody, therefore if the causal link is made between air pollution and new emerging viruses such as COVID-19 this could potentially open the flood gates for claims and the impact on insurers could be very significant.

Read others items in London Market Brief - November 2020

Read others items in Occupational Disease Brief - November 2020

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