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Cutting down on cars improves heart health

AFP – Although not always popular with the general public, low-emission zones (LEZs) are gradually being rolled out across Europe in an attempt to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution in major conurbations.

Now, a new study by researchers at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, highlights how these and congestion charge zones (CCZs) can have a positive impact on public health.

PHOTO: FREEPIK

Published in The Lancet Public Health journal, this data analysis looked at the health effects of these new zones in several cities in the UK, Europe and Asia.

The scientists first examined more than 2,000 potentially relevant studies, before finally focusing on the results of 16 studies published between 2005 and 2022, on LEZs and CCZs set up in Tokyo, Japan; Milan, Italy; and London, UK.

However, they did not examine the impact of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), in which owners of high-emission vehicles must pay a fee to drive.

In their analysis, the researchers observed a significant drop in cardiovascular (heart) disease after the introduction of LEZs in several cities, as well as a reduction in road accidents associated with congestion charging.

“Measuring the impact of interventions like LEZs can be difficult. 

“Our review brings together the global evidence to help understand how effective LEZs and CCZs are in bringing about benefits to public health.

“We found evidence of health benefits within a relatively short time of implementation, particularly in relation to cardiovascular disease and road traffic injuries,” said study first author Rosemary Chamberlain, a PhD candidate at Imperial’s MRC Centre for Environment and Health, and School of Public Health, in a news release.

With regard to LEZs, the researchers observed a 4.6 per cent drop in high blood pressure in Germany, and a reduction of over 11 per cent in deaths from cardiovascular disease in Japan in the majority of studies examined.

On the other hand, only two studies reported a reduction in respiratory diseases associated with the deployment of LEZs in the cities studied.

Given the small number of studies included in this analysis, further research will be needed to confirm the long-term impact of these zones on the health of users.

“As with any interventions based on financial penalties to incentivise change, careful consideration of how and where they are implemented is key.

“One argument against LEZs in cities is that they can hit people on lower incomes the hardest.

“But the reality is that poor air quality and associated ill health often most impacts the poorest in our cities.

“We need to address this in order to improve air quality and public health.

“Continued monitoring and evaluation remain crucial, but this review and other evidence supports efforts to reduce the use of private motor vehicles – particularly older, more polluting vehicles – in cities,” concluded Imperial’s School of Public Health senior lecturer Dr Anthony Laverty. 

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