What’s the air like near me?

Below is some information to help you find out what the air is like where you live, and whether your council is meeting limits for air pollution. For more information about why we care about air pollution, including the health effects, see here - and to find out what the most appropriate measures to call for in your area are, see here.

Many towns and cities failing limits on key pollutants

There are many different air pollutants, which have different mixtures of sources. The key pollutants of concern - as with so many environmental problems, including climate change - arise from the burning of fossil fuels. When it comes to air pollution, road traffic is the biggest problem, and diesels the worst of all.

The cars, vans, motorbikes, buses and trucks on our roads spit out a toxic mix of particles and gases. There are currently three pollutants of most concern – fine particles, Nitrogen Dioxide gas, and Ozone gas.

The UK has legal limits for concentrations of pollutants in the air we breathe, based on European Union (EU) requirements (the Ambient Air Quality Directive), which are informed by World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended levels. The government has also given Local Authorities responsibilities in their area under the Local Air Quality Management (LAQM) regime.

1. Particulate Matter (PMs) – many UK cities failing World Health Organisation standards

These most dangerous fine 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. The particle pollution comes from exhaust pipes, but also all vehicles, including those which produce no exhaust emissions, produce significant quantities from abrasion of brakes and tyre wear. Particulates worsen heart and lung disease.

The UK has just about met UK/EU legal limits. However the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended levels are twice as strict, and all Londoners live with levels over the WHO limit, with many more UK cities on the WHO database also failing their limit. Check here to see if your town or city is on the list here.

However, even more worrying, the WHO has found Health effects levels below even their current standard for PM2.5. Indeed it has found no level below which there are no health effects – so it’s crucial that levels of this type of pollution be driven down continuously.

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 the most up to date health-based WHO standards, and to putting the country on the path to meeting them.

2. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) – many UK cities failing legal standards

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.

The UK should have met UK/EU legal Limit Values for NO2 by 2010 - or 2015 at the latest, with an extension.

Shockingly, however, 37 of the 43 Air Quality Zones (into which the UK is divided for air quality purposes) still fail to meet EU annual legal limit of 40 micrograms/m3. There are individual Zone plans for each Zone which may be of interest [LINK]. The 40 micrograms/m3 level is also the current World Health Organisation recommended level, though worryingly they have identified health impacts below this level.

The current illegal NO2 problem is largely a roadside one, with local road transport responsible for more than half of these emissions, and with diesel cars being the single biggest part of local road transport’s contribution [LINK].

Despite the terrible impact on people’s health the Government is still finding ways to avoid adequately cleaning up our air. And this is also despite the fact that the EU is proceeding with ‘infraction’ proceedings against the UK meaning there is a risk of the UK being fined. It is also despite the fact that the government has been taken to court and lost 3 times on its failure to do enough. It has also had to progressively produce stronger plans and require more action from more Local Authorities, but is still at risk of being taken back to court yet again.

There is a shocking list of UK towns and cities which the government forecasts with illegal levels of NO2 – with some places not due to get legal levels for years to come, without further action. See Annex K of the Detailed Plan.

London has the worst levels of NO2 of all. Londoners are not due to get legal levels until 2028, unless further action is taken. The 5 big cities which the government projected to have the worst air after London - Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton - have been required to take action. Since 2017 a further 23 English Local Authorities have had to be told to take action, and most recently, following the most recent court action, a further 33 English Local Authorities have had to be told to take action. Devolved Administrations are considered separately.

3. More places with bad air – those with Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs)

Even more shockingly there are many more places which have levels of NO2 over the same 40 micrograms/m3 level at which the legal limit is set, but which are not counted as having illegal levels of air. These places come under the separate (but related) Local Air Quality Management regime whereby Local Authorities have a weaker requirement to meet the Objective for NO2 (which is set at the same level as the legal limit), and an AQMA is declared if this would be failed.

See here whether your area has an AQMA, and you can look at the Annual Status Reports your Local Authority has to produce by looking on their website

4. The most disadvantaged communities are particularly affected, and can benefit most

There is a real social injustice in where the air is worst and who is most affected by air pollution - as the government says in their 2017 NO2 Plan: “air quality also tends to be poorest in areas of high deprivation”.

Friends of the Earth is not satisfied with the action the government is taking itself on NO2, or what it is requiring of Local Authorities, and is calling for stronger action sooner.

See here for what Friends of the Earth thinks is the appropriate action to call for in your area.

5. 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 or suburban areas rather than urban areas and can lead to bad pollution episodes. Ozone irritates the eyes, nose and throat.


Daily Air Quality Index

To see what air pollution is like at any time, check the Dairy Air Quality Index and the recommended health advice for the general public and at-risk individuals. It should be noted that even ‘moderate’ air pollution is above short-term limits for some pollutants and therefore should be taken seriously. If you’re based in London then check out the King’s College London’s London Air site for even fuller information.