Launching a report on air pollution, England’s Chief Medical Officer also said people need to have more information on sources of pollutants – from the type of heating systems or wood they are burning in stoves to the impacts of idling – to help reduce the problem.
The report said there has been progress in tackling outdoor air pollution over the years, and that is set to continue.
But outdoor air pollution still leads to the equivalent of 26,000 to 38,000 deaths a year in England, along with health problems throughout life, from asthma in children to dementia, heart attacks and strokes in older people.
Prof Whitty said the Government should take the issue seriously, and the country can and should go further to reduce air pollution from sources ranging from diesel trains in stations to slurry spread on fields.
He also warned against “backsliding” on the switch to electric vehicles, which will help reduce pollutants from transport, in particular nitrogen oxides.
The report also flags the issue of indoor air pollution, which will become an increasing proportion of the overall problem as outdoor air quality improves.
Prof Whitty said around 80% of the average day is spent indoors, so tackling indoor pollution is important, but there is a lack of knowledge about the issue and a feeling that it is “private” space – although many indoor places are public buildings such as schools, hospitals and stations.
Heating buildings is an important source of indoor as well as outdoor pollution, with open fires and older wood stoves emitting far more pollutants than gas-fired boilers, while electric heating is clean, the report shows.
The Chief Medical Officer said he is not calling for a ban on anything, but that there is a need to give people information so they can make a “small tweak” to their lives to curb pollution – for example, highlighting the difference between wet or dry wood for the amount of pollutants they put out.
And he said there is also a need to recognise the conflict between tackling indoor air pollution and disease spread by improving ventilation and efforts to save heat loss and cut carbon from buildings – and come up with engineering solutions that do both.
When it comes to air pollution, education and information should come before enforcement, he added.
“A lot of the things where people are doing things that are polluting, they’re simply not aware of it or they’re not aware of how much difference it would make were they to take a different path, and therefore a lot of this is about information,” he said.
“In terms of idling, I think we should make really clear to people the downsides of doing this – that they are actually causing significant problems, potentially, to vulnerable people.
“I think almost every parent would consider someone who is idling a car outside their child’s school to be an incredibly anti-social person to have around.
“And I think as much of this should be about people saying and having the courage to say ‘Look, please don’t do this’.”
Prof Whitty also said: “It is really important we don’t have backsliding from an air pollution point of view on the move towards electric vehicles, as that will take nitrogen oxides out of the picture.”
Professor Alastair Lewis, from the University of York, who is chairman of the Defra (Environment Department) air quality expert group, said switching to electric vehicles will tackle the issue of idling and pollution hotspots such as traffic lights and pedestrian crossings.
The report also highlighted that walking and cycling have fallen off significantly since the 1950s, with the miles travelled by bicycle tumbling since the Second World War.
Reversing the decline would have substantial additional health benefits from extra physical activity, alongside reductions in air pollution, but barriers such as fears over road safety need to be removed, Prof Whitty said.
One area where outdoor pollution has not improved is ammonia, mostly from agriculture such as spreading of slurry – animal manure – on fields which can combine with other chemicals to create long-lasting, far-reaching pollution.
“This is a matter of choice,” Prof Whitty said, adding that it is possible to tackle it by investing in new technology which puts slurry directly into or on to the soil, also cutting the need for fertiliser and reducing run-off which pollutes rivers.
The report makes a series of recommendations on tackling outdoor and indoor air pollution.
These include accelerating the electrification of cars, tackling pollutants from specialised vehicles such as refrigerated lorries and rubbish collection trucks, electrifying railways and preventing idling of diesel trains in stations, as well as cutting pollution from the NHS and training healthcare staff on the issue.
Indoor air pollution needs more research, while emissions in buildings can be reduced by using less polluting stoves and burning wood that is dry, and rules in smoke control areas should be adhered to, the report said.