books environment health

Book review: Breathless, by Chris Woodford

There is nothing more natural than breathing. As the back cover blurb for Chris Woodford’s Breathless points out, we all do it 20,000 times a day. And yet what we breathe into our bodies is far from natural, and really quite complicated.

Breathless is an impressive overview of the issue of air pollution. And the first thing to note about it is that “‘air pollution’ is a bit of a misnomer: it’s not one neat and easy-to-tackle problem but many subtly different, difficult issues that don’t always benefit from being lumped together.”

So, for example, some countries suffer from air pollution from industry and coal power, or from diesel fumes and traffic. But some of the most deadly air pollution is from inefficient cooking fires in some of the world’s poorest countries, so exposure to harmful air is not necessarily a function of development.

Then there are lots of different pollutants to navigate, from natural ones such as pollen or dust, to gases such as carbon monoxide, to airborne particulates. There are multiple sources, they behave in different ways, and have different effects. Nevertheless, almost all of us have a problem with one aspect or another – 90% of the world’s people are breathing polluted air.

Since it’s complicated, Woodford tackles the subject from a variety of angles, including healthcare, economics and technology. One chapter looks at the history of air pollution, which was recognised as a problem as early as the Roman era – and clean air was considered a human right. Another chapter looks at natural pollutants from fires, volcanoes or pollen, setting human caused pollution in context. The book covers international perspectives, including how the West cleaned its air in part by outsourcing heavy industry to China and elsewhere.

Social justice questions are well covered, from international outsourcing, to environmental racism, to pedestrians breathing in traffic fumes. Children and unborn babies are particularly vulnerable. “Pollution affects everyone”, writes Woodford, “but, cruelly, those most affected are the least able to do anything about it”.

Chris Woodford is an experienced science writer, writing for both adults and children, so he is something of an expert in making science understandable and interesting. This really pays off here, turning a potentially unwieldy subject into a clear and engaging introduction. There are useful analogies and anecdotes. Big numbers are always contextualised, questions are anticipated and answered. He is clear when ‘not everyone agrees’ or when research is inconclusive. He does his own experiments, measuring air pollution while burning toast or riding a steam train. And nothing is assumed – there’s even a section on ‘what is air anyway?’ – making the book accessible without ever talking down to its readers. I’ve learned a huge amount about air pollution, but I’ve also been taking notes as a writer.

If I had a criticism, it would be that sometimes the book spends more time on the flaws with certain solutions than the benefits, which risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You could read the book and conclude that we shouldn’t bother with electric cars, for example, which would just saddle us with diesels for another generation. But it’s not offering easy answers, which is fair. Air pollution is massive global health crisis, doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should, and needs concerted action at multiple levels of society.

Looked at the other way, reducing air pollution is also a way to improve the life and health of billions of people. “Pollution kills millions, but cleaning it up could save millions. We have a great opportunity to make life better for many of the world’s people.”

The first step towards seizing those improvements is to understand air pollution better, which makes this a very useful and important book.


  1. Thank you for highlighting Breathless, just ordered. Until l worked in central London for 5 years in the early noughties l had no obvious respiratory conditions but by the end had succumbed to asthma requiring daily management through steroids, and still do. Whilst other factors will have been in play l have no doubt working in Holborn by busy road intersections played a significant part in triggering the condition.

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