Children exposed to roadside air pollution could have their lung growth stunted by up to 14%, a study suggests.
Living within 50m of a major road could increase the risk of lung cancer by up to 10%, the paper also found.
The study of 13 cities in the UK and Poland found air pollution contributes to a higher chance of heart disease, strokes, heart failure and bronchitis.
Campaigners called on the government to commit to tackling “dangerous” air pollution in the UK.
The report written by King’s College London analysed 13 health conditions in people living in high pollution areas and compared them to the general population.
It focused not just on hospital admissions and deaths but also symptoms such as chest infections.
The study found roadside air pollution stunted lung growth in children by approximately 14% in Oxford, 13% in London, 8% in Birmingham, 5% in Liverpool, 3% in Nottingham and 4% in Southampton.
Researchers also said if air pollution was cut by a fifth, there would be thousands fewer cases of children with symptoms of bronchitis across those UK cities.
“Air pollution makes us, and especially our children, sick from cradle to the grave, but is often invisible,” said Dr Rob Hughes, senior fellow at the Clean Air Fund.
“This impressive research makes this public health crisis – which affects people all across the UK – visible, and shows the urgency with which all political parties must prioritise cleaning up our air.”
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, called on the UK government to legally commit to the World Health Organisation’s targets to clean up the country’s “dangerous” air.
WHO’s clean air target is for is for 40 µg/m3 – 40 micrograms of annual nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre of air.
“It seems as if every day we see more and more evidence of the terrible health effects air pollution is having on our lungs,” Dr Woods said.
“It’s the most vulnerable that are hit hardest,” she added.
“We know air pollution stunts our children’s still-developing lungs and those with a lung condition can find their symptoms are made far worse by poor air quality.”
The group behind the study – a coalition of 15 health and environment NGOs, including the British Lung Foundation – is calling for a national network of Clean Air Zones across the UK.
Toxic air pollution in central London has reportedly fallen by a third since the introduction of a new traffic charging zone.
Levels of nitrogen dioxide in the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) dropped by 30% in the first six months of the scheme, according to City Hall.