Although UK air is a lot cleaner today than in smoggy days of the 1950's (when nearly everyone had a coal fire and factory chimneys belched out smoke) we are ranked amongst the worst polluters in Europe for airborne particles and nitrogen dioxide.
More than 20 towns and cities have been found to have air pollution at twice the level specified in World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. Nationally, twice as many people today suffer from lung disease and asthmatic conditions caused by air pollution than did so 20 years ago.
In London, concentrations of dangerous air pollutants in 2008 were more than three times greater than WHO safe limits. London's polluted air is estimated to directly contribute to around 6-7,000 deaths each year.
Worldwide, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that air pollution causes the annual premature deaths of two million people worldwide.
What's in the air?
Road transport, power stations and other industry and even wood or coal fires at home are all sources of air pollution. Different sources are responsible for different pollutants.
The five main pollutants that can cause health effects are:
Carbon monoxide (CO) A poisonous gas produced mainly by petrol engines, it damages respiratory and circulatory body functions and reduces oxygen supply to major organs including the heart.
Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) Found in vehicle and smokestack exhaust. Nitrous oxides compromise lung functions and can cause respiratory and viral illness, notably in children.
VOCs and ozone VOCs react with sunlight and nitrous oxide and form ground level ozone, which is capable of travelling thousands of miles. Although in the stratosphere ozone provides vital protection against the sun's ultraviolet radiation, at ground level it can exacerbate health conditions such as asthma and lung disease.
Sulphur dioxide Created through the combustion of fossil fuels that contain sulphur compounds, it can contribute to various lung conditions even at moderate levels of concentration.
Fine Particles (PM10, PM2.5) and soot Dusts, sulphates and nitrates from road traffic and other sources, these fine particles can be carcinogenic and are able to pass through the lungs into the bloodstream, causing inflammation as well as more serious conditions.(Source: The UK Air Quality Archive)
These days the main threat to clean air in built-up areas is traffic, according to the UK Air Quality Archive. Petrol and diesel fuelled vehicles emit a variety of pollutants, principally carbon monoxide (CO), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), particulates (PM10) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as the carcinogen benzene. Road vehicles are responsible for over half the nitrogen dioxide emissions and over 75 per cent of carbon monoxide in the UK.
Why bother checking?
In a publication on Air Pollution and Health, the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) says that high levels of air pollution are rare and 'if you're healthy, the levels of air pollution we usually experience in the UK are unlikely to have any serious short-term effects'.
However, it also emphasises that daily changes in air pollution trigger increased admissions to hospital and contribute to the premature death of those who are seriously ill. If you're concerned about air pollution, if you suffer when levels are high (eye irritation, breathing problems, coughing) or if you have heart conditions or lung diseases (asthma, bronchitis or emphasyma) it's worth checking the air quality levels.
How to check - interactive maps
- UK - Check air quality levels in the UK online, by phone (0800 55 66 77) or teletext (pages 155 and 169). The UK Air Quality Archive is a free service managed by Defra. You can find out regional forecasts for the next 24 hours, air pollution and health advice and alert messages when air pollution is high.
- London - check air quality levels in London. The London Air Quality Network is managed by the Environmental Research Group (ERG) at King's College London.
- Europe: Compare air quality in various European cities online using this EU webservice map.
- For a wider European scope and more high-tech map - see Eye on Earth's 'Airwatch', a partnership between Microsoft and the European Environment Agency which provides information on air (and bathing water) quality across 27 European countries. You can also rate the air near you based on a selection of descriptive words 'clean', etc.
Helping to reduce air pollution
Exposure to air pollutants is largely beyond an individual's control. It requires action at regional, national and international levels. However, there are some things you can do on a personal level. These simple actions are especially important when pollution levels are high.
On the road
- Avoid using your car for short journeys - 2.5 km (~1.5 miles) or less
- If possible, don't use your car at all during periods of high pollution
- Start your engine only once you are ready to move off
- Don't rev the engine unnecessarily
- Drive smoothly. Heavy braking and rapid acceleration means you use more fuel and increase pollution
- Keep to the speed limit
- Maintain your car. Keep the engine properly tuned and the tyres at the right pressure
- Use public transport whenever you can
- Use water-based or low-solvent products - paints, glues, varnishes, wood preservatives, etc.
In the garden
- Don't light a bonfire when air pollution levels are high. Never burn household waste, especially plastics and rubber.
(Source: UK National Air Quality Archive)
How to avoid air pollution
Cyclists and pedestrians - find out how you can reduce your exposure to traffic pollution by simply crossing the street or changing your route slightly here.
Higher pollution areas
- Cities/towns in deep valleys
- In summer, during sunny, still weather, particularly ozone in suburban and rural areas
- In winter, in cold, still, foggy weather, particularly vehicle pollutants in large cities
- Busy roads with heavy traffic next to high buildings and busy road junctions
- High levels of solid fuel, e.g. coal and wood, used for heating in the local area
Lower pollution areas
- Cities/towns on hills
- Windy or wet weather at any time of year
- Rural areas away from major roads and factories (for most pollutants except ozone)
- Residential roads with light traffic
- Smoke control area or areas with high levels of gas or electric used for heating
How to campaign for cleaner air
• See the Ecologist guide to: 'Campaigning: the basics'
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