As with so many environmental problems, much of the root cause of air pollution is burning fossil fuels. Road traffic is the biggest problem, and diesel is the worst of all.
The cars, vans and buses on our roads spit out a toxic mix of particles and gases, including the three pollutants that are of most concern. They are:
- Particulate matter (PMs). The most dangerous tiny particles of air pollution are much smaller than the width of a human hair and are largely invisible, but this means they can penetrate deep into our lungs, and can even get into the bloodstream. Particulates worsen heart and lung disease.
- Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2). This is a toxic gas which is often colourless, meaning it won’t usually be seen, although an orange haze can sometimes be seen hanging over a city from a distance. NO2 damages the lungs and reduces immunity to lung infections such as bronchitis.
- Ground level Ozone (O3). This is created when NO2 and hydrocarbons (created from burning fossil fuels) react in sunlight to create smog. This is often worse in rural rather than urban areas and can lead to high pollution episodes and irritates the eyes, nose and throat.
Every year, outdoor air pollution causes around 40,000 early deaths in the UK and is linked to health conditions including respiratory illness like asthma, heart disease and even causes lung cancer.
It’s a health risk to us all. But it's children, the elderly and people who already have health conditions who are affected the most.
Pollution also affects the most disadvantaged people who tend to live near main roads, where pollution is at its worst. Research has also shown that Black and ethnic minority communities are at a higher risk of suffering the effects of pollution.
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has said that “new schools, hospitals and care homes must not be built next to air pollution hotspots, and existing schools next to busy roads should also be fitted with air filtration systems”.
A report by the Greater London Authority found that nearly 90 schools in London were exposed to illegal levels of air pollution. And we know the picture is bleak in towns and cities around the UK.
We can give you information on how many premature deaths there are in your town each year, and when your local authority is due to meet legal limits of air pollution. To find out about pollution levels in your town, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to find out yourself – check out the Public Health England report.
Legal limits of air pollution
Because of the health risk of breathing in dirty air, the World Health Organisation has released guidelines on safe levels of pollution. It also points out that there are no safe levels of small particulate matter which have health impacts even at very low concentrations.
The EU has also set limits for air pollutants, but the difference is that these are legally binding for the UK. Despite the terrible impact on people’s health and the fact that the UK is at risk of being fined for breaching these limits, the Government is still finding ways to avoid cleaning up our air. Even if we leave the EU following the Brexit vote, the UK must at least meet these standards.
6 KILLER FACTS ABOUT AIR POLLUTION
- Cleaning up diesel pollution could help prevent 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year. High levels of air pollution have been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and dementia. The impacts are worse for the most vulnerable, with long term exposure to air pollution damaging children’s lung development, and making existing lung and heart conditions worse, particularly in older people.
- If the Government gets its way, a child born in 2016 could be breathing illegal levels of air pollution until they are 9, when the damage to their lungs will have been done. The UK is divided into 43 air quality zones, and of these only 5 have met the legal deadline for meeting air pollution limits for Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) in 2015. The Government’s plans won’t see legal limits of NO2 being met across the UK until at least 2020 (and in London, 2025). This means that children born in 2016 in London could be breathing illegally dirty air for the next 9 years.
- 1 in 4 London primary schools are in areas that breach legal limits for NO2 (set by the EU), and this is likely to be similar across much of the UK. A recent report found that 25% of all school children are breathing illegally dirty air in London. Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson was accused of burying the report, which linked high levels of pollution and deprived schools. The report found that four-fifths of the 433 London primary schools in areas breaching EU limits for NO2 were in deprived areas of London.
- About 11 million cars were designed to cheat air quality tests. Last September Volkswagen was caught using sophisticated software programmes to cheat emissions tests. The BBC have good coverage of the Volkswagen scandal.
- Sitting inside a car can be more dangerous for your health. An experiment by the Healthy Air Campaign found that all road users are affected by air pollution – in fact pedestrians and cyclists are often exposed to less air pollution than people in vehicles, especially if they’re using backstreets.
- Clean air zones in all towns and cities would cut traffic and reduce deadly pollution. There are clean air zones proposed in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton which could prevent the most polluting vehicles entering the city centre. If clean air zones were adopted all over the country, tens of millions of people would be able to breathe cleaner air every day.