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Air pollution is a hidden problem. The air may look clean and smell fresh, but it could be dangerously toxic – particularly in towns and cities1.
Prime Minister, Theresa May has recently declared that dirty air is the fourth biggest risk to public health in the UK. Only the threat from cancer, obesity and cardiovascular disease is more severe2. But what’s going on, and why is it such a serious problem?
What is air pollution?
Air is a complex cocktail of different gases, including nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. It also contains ‘traces’ (tiny amounts) of many other gases including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and ozone. There are many tiny suspended particles in the air, invisible to the naked eye. These gases and particles are harmless, in low doses.
However, if the levels of certain gases rise above a certain level, they become potentially dangerous for human health. In the UK, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM are the main culprits and levels are illegally high in cities across the country. Most NO2 and all PM is emitted by cars and vans, with diesel engines the worst offenders3.
The health risks
Breathing in high levels of pollutants such as NO2 and PM can be harmful to health. The health risks are more severe for children, the elderly and people with existing respiratory conditions such as asthma. A 2015 Government report estimated that 50,000 people die prematurely each year as a result of poor air quality4. Most of the health problems associated with air pollution are chronic, long term conditions.
In children, NO2 is known to stunt lung growth. Breathing in harmful levels of this gas is also known increase the risk of developing diseases including asthma and lung cancer. The individual risk of one exposure to dirty air is low, but they add up over time. As well as increasing the risk of a healthy person developing asthma, air pollution puts existing asthma sufferers at higher risk.
When air pollution is particularly bad, it creates peaks in GP visits and emergency hospitalisations. It can also make people with asthma more sensitive to other triggers, such as house dust mites, pollen and pets5.
What’s being done about it?
The levels of pollutants in many UK cities such as London, Aberdeen, Birmingham and Leeds are illegally high, and exceed limits set by the EU. The government is working to clean up the air and reduce the levels of the most toxic gases, including NO2 and PM. Cars, vans and lorries are the biggest source of harmful air pollution so policies are focused on making vehicles cleaner and reducing traffic on urban roads2.
In the next few years, proposed changes will include stricter tests for vehicle manufacturers, to force them to make cleaner engines. There will also be ‘clean air zones’ across the country which drivers of polluting cars will have to pay to drive in.2
What can I do?
If you live in a town or city and you are concerned about air pollution, there are things you can do to minimise your exposure to harmful pollutants. When out and about, it is best to stick to quieter streets and avoid main roads. You should also aim to walk, cycle or take public transport whenever you can, and leave your car at home3.
You can also check sites such as Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and London Air for forecasts, updates and maps of air pollution in your city.
Find out more
Children, the elderly and people with existing respiratory conditions such as asthma are most at risk from air pollution. You can find out more about asthma here and there is some further information about managing respiratory conditions here.
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