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, trucks, motorbikes 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; it 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 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.

Air 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.

A joint investigation by the Guardian and Greenpeace found more than 2,000 schools and nurseries across England and Wales are close to roads with damaging levels of diesel fumes.

We can give you information on how many early deaths there are in your town each year attributable to air pollution, and whether your council meets legal limits on air pollution. To find out about air pollution levels in your town, contact

If you want to find out yourself – check out the Public Health England report.

Legal limits on air pollution

Because of the health risk of breathing in dirty air, the World Health Organisation (WHO) 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 European Union (EU) has also set limits for air pollutants, which although not as strong as the WHO’s on Particulate Matter pollution 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. The Clean Air Act Coalition, of which Friends of the Earth is a member, is calling on the government to commit to moving the UK to WHO standards, and to putting the country on the path to meeting them.

6 killer facts about air pollution

  1. Cleaning up air pollution, particularly from diesels, would help prevent early deaths – there are 40,000 in the UK every year from air pollution. 

    Air pollution triggers strokes and heart attacks and worsens cardio–vascular and respiratory diseases including asthma. It also causes lung cancer, is associated with changes in the brain linked to dementia, can affect growth of the foetus and may be linked to premature birth. 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.
  2. If the Government fails to act, a child born in 2017 could be breathing illegal levels of air pollution until they are 8. 

    The UK is divided into 43 Air Quality Zones, and of these only 6 have currently met the legal deadline for meeting air pollution limits for NO2. The Government’s plans won’t see legal limits on NO2 being met across the UK until at least 2020 (and in London, 2025). This means that children born in 2017 in London could be breathing illegally dirty air for the next 8 years.
  3. Many children are affected by dangerous air pollution while at school.

    In London 802 nurseries, primary and secondary schools and higher education colleges are within 150 metres of roads with levels of NO2 over EU legal limits. [source] And, shockingly, 85% of the schools most affected by air pollution have pupils that come from deprived neighbourhoods. 86% of the worst affected primary schools are in catchment areas with lower than average car ownership. [source]
  4. About 11 million cars were designed to cheat air quality tests. 

    In September 2015 Volkswagen was caught using sophisticated software programmes to cheat emissions tests. 
  5. 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.
  6. Clean Air Zones in all towns and cities would cut traffic and reduce deadly air pollution. 

    There are Clean Air Zones already proposed in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton which will restrict some of the most polluting vehicles entering the city. But the government is not proposing any more. Clean Air Zones are needed in all the places that are set to still have illegal air in 2019, to help people breathe cleaner air every day.