Reaching out to people most affected by air pollution

Air pollution is a public health emergency. The UK is way out of time in meeting health-based legal limits for the toxic gas Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2). Most of our towns and cities are suffering under illegal levels of air pollution, many for years to come.

While it affects most of us, many people will be disproportionately impacted by air pollution. Understanding this can help you involve a wider range of people and build the broadest campaign that reflects the area and concerns of the community. The voices and experiences of those most affected can often be very powerful. Such voices will add even more strength and legitimacy to your campaign – making decision-makers more likely to hear and act on concerns. 

Here are some facts and top tips to help your campaign reach out to and speak with those most affected by air pollution. See also ‘Why do we care about air pollution’ [LINK].

Please note: Many of the facts below are deeply worrying for many people – especially if people feel unable to do anything about it. So remember to be positive about your campaigning – together we can, and will, end dangerous levels of air pollution. Get inspiration from the vision of how your area could benefit from less traffic and better air quality from here [LINK]. Thousands of people up and down the country are taking action and forcing Government and councils to act. The more people are aware of this public health emergency, the more likely we are to secure the changes we need to protect people’s health.

If people are concerned about their health they should discuss this with a health professional, and take steps to avoid the worst exposure to bad air. And especially if they are particularly vulnerable to poor air quality, they should check the Daily Air Quality Index’s advice for when air pollution is bad.

Have you got a top tip you’d like to see added to this list? Get in touch and contact

People living in deprived neighbourhoods

Levels of air pollution are often higher in deprived neighbourhoods – further worsening the UK’s health inequalities. People on the lowest incomes tend to live closer to main roads. 

  • Try reaching out to local resident’s associations and housing associations to ask if you can speak at the next meeting about air quality in the area. 

  • How about contacting the councillors in the most deprived areas and asking them for their engagement in the campaign? They will often be keen to discuss something that is damaging the health of many of their residents. Could they organise a public meeting on the problem? 

  • Friends of the Earth may be able to help you secure air monitoring tubes. Get in touch with if you’d like more information.

Children and young people

Children whose lungs are still developing are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of bad air pollution. More than 2,000 schools and nurseries are close to roads with damaging levels of air pollution. Evidence has shown that some primary school children living in highly polluted urban areas had up to 5% less lung capacity than normal, putting them at risk of lung disease in adult life and early death, according to Professor Griffiths from Queen Mary University of London.

Children living in highly polluted areas are also four times more likely to have reduced lung function in adulthood. Can you believe it? Thankfully also, improving air quality for children has been shown to halt and reverse this effect. Read more in the report by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatric and Child Health - The lifelong impact of air pollution.

  • The Clean Air Schools Pack is a free educational resource to help engage school pupils and teachers on air quality. It contains free air quality monitoring tubes to help children uncover the pollution levels near the school and campaign to reduce it. Find out more and order a Schools Pack

  • If you're a student at college or university, particularly if you've grown up in a polluted place, you may also be keen to get involved in campaigning for clean air. Get in touch with the Students’ Union at your University/College or with your Student Liaison Officer to talk about joint work.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic people

Black, Asian and minority ethnic people have been found to be disproportionately exposed to one of the most dangerous types of air pollution – Particulate Matter. Worryingly, there is no level at which there have found to have no health effects. 

  • Most towns and cities where air pollution is a significant problem will have some form of BAME organisation. The Council may be able to provide a list of organisations to contact. There may also be some BAME community centres and associations in the area. 

  • Many BAME people practise a faith. Does your area have a Mosque, Gurdwara, Church, Temple, or other place of worship? You could ask to talk to the respective committees or leaders about air pollution in the area and how you can work together. Some places will be happy to have a stall and information leaflets; some may even be happy to conduct air quality monitoring. 

Pregnant women

A recent study suggests that air pollution  increases the risk of low birth weight in babies, risking lifelong damage to health. Scientists have also warned that exposure to air pollution in pregnancy may be linked to premature births.

  • Many people will find it reassuring to know that there are services that alert you when air pollution is bad. You can also think about how you travel so you can lessen your exposure to dirty air. Generally, travelling through side streets and avoiding main roads is best. Here’s a London-specific tool that can help plan lower pollution routes.

Older people

As we grow older, our immune systems tend to weaken and we become more susceptible to falling ill, and older people are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions which air pollution can worsen (see section below). We also know that for older people, living near a busy road speeds up the rate of lung function decline that is associated with ageing. 

  • Try approaching the local Age UK group, the National Pensioners Convention, as well as regional retired member sections of trade unions. 

People with respiratory, cardio-vascular and other health conditions

We know air pollution can trigger heart attacks and strokes, exacerbate existing conditions such as asthma, and that air pollution - diesel fumes as well as particle air pollution on their own - can even cause lung cancer. 

  • GP surgeries in your area may be ideal places for posters and leaflets. Many national charities such as the British Lung Foundation will have local groups and networks that you can link up with. Check the partners of the Healthy Air Campaign, of which Friends of the Earth is a member.

  • You might also want to let doctors in your area know about the excellent Doctors Against Diesel, medical professionals who are campaigning for action on air pollution. 

In the workplace

Air pollution is a health and safety problem in the workplace. Trade unionists - from taxi drivers to teachers to postal service workers - are sounding the alarm and campaigning for protection from exposure to cancer-causing diesel fumes and air pollution.  

  • Workplaces with a trade union will often have health and safety representatives. They will be best placed to discuss the potential harm caused by air pollution to workers. Organisations such as Unite the Union and Greener Jobs Alliance have resources for trade unionists to campaign on air pollution and exposure to diesel fumes and air pollution.

  • An experiment by Kings College London showed that those in vehicles can be exposed to more air pollution than those walking or cycling the same street, although walking or cycling side streets was even better.