top of page
  • Writer's picturePhilip J Connolly

Air Pollution is Making More of us Disabled

Dr Dean Schraufnagel of Illinois University has led a review of 70,000 scientific studies and concluded that every organ of the body is being exposed to harmful levels of air pollution. His team's work published two yeas ago in the journal Chest breaks new ground in moving from a focus on the heart and lungs to other organs especially the brain. He documents the effects of breathing in toxics that pass from the lungs into the blood stream and from there to almost every cell. The brain is now thought to be at real risk.

As a person diagnosed with Parkinsons disease at the age of 56, Schraufnagel echoes my own fears that the disease has its causes in the poor air that I breathe. Of course almost all my adult life I have tried to stay well. I don't smoke, I don't consume alcohol, I have never driven a car and consequently walked many more miles than the average car driver, I am vegetarian. I have sought out the therapeutic value of association and affirmation with and from others. I accept the evidence of Professor Robert Putnam for the health dividend from social capital. In his book, "Bowling Alone" he establishes from the health literature that if you regularly attend the meetings of just one civic group you half your chances of dying prematurely from all causes in the following year. Yes as Putnam says we are better together. Now I am from the North of England and we don't like to make a fuss but you know with air pollution its not just that tens of thousands die each year, it is also that hundreds of thousands, I mean millions, become permanently ill. Sure people have accidents, sure 5% are born with a disability, sure ageing minds and bodies contribute to the prevalence of disability but if you want to reduce disability, reduce pollution. If it requires making a fuss then make a fuss.

The affected are not just the ones with physical ill health but very many of those with mental health or neurological conditions such as autism or dementia too. The Welcome Trust currently has an exhibition called "In the air" that runs until October 16th. The opening interview with the Lewisham mother of the eight year girl who's death certificate listed air pollution as her cause of death makes the point that we don't all breathe the same air. Poorer people breathe poorer air, and they know it. The pollution assaults their mental health and abuses their bodies.

The same exhibition references the need for collective action. It makes the point that newly emitted pollution can go round the world in as little as two weeks. In short almost all the threats to our health and well-being require greater collective action. That's why we need Governments and alliances and partnerships capable of policy interventions. Individualistic approaches cannot stop us being exposed. Individual wealth cannot save us either, 97% of us are already exposed to harmful levels of pollution. In response we need individuals to collectives. We need disabled people and those with a long term health condition to become environmentalists and for environmentalists to prioritise us. In summary the environmental movement and the equalities movements need to connect and become active allies because to solve the most pressing systematic problems we will have to scale up. In the week when we have received the first images of the cosmos from the James Webb telescope scaling up could become easier for people to think about. It's no longer about me but for us to succeed we have to think bigger than - we.

Scale up. Join the Disability Resilience Network by completing the form at


bottom of page