Air pollution is the top environmental risk to human health in the UK, and the fourth greatest threat to public health after cancer, heart disease and obesity. Air pollution makes us more susceptible to respiratory infections and is recognised as a contributing factor in the onset of heart disease and cancer.
Additionally, air pollution particularly affects the most vulnerable in society: children and older people, and those with existing respiratory and heart conditions.
There is also often a strong correlation with equalities issues, because areas with poor air quality are also often the less affluent. The annual health cost to society of the impacts of particulate matter alone in the UK is estimated to be around £16 billion.
Air pollution has been linked to:
- Asthma attacks
- Heart attacks
- Impaired lung function
- Lung Cancer
- Impaired development in children
- Premature and low weight births
Pollutants in the air come from a variety of sources including: vehicles, industry, heating systems and natural sources. Some of these pollutants (such as those caused by vehicle emissions) have no known safe limit, for this reason local authorities have legal responsibilities for assessing and working towards improving air quality in their area.
What is Air Pollution?
Many substances can pollute the air. Some of these are very harmful and their sale and use is strictly regulated. Others are not immediately harmful, but are released in thousands or millions of tonnes per year nationally as by-products of transport, energy production, chemicals manufacture, domestic combustion and farming. When released into the air these substances have gradual but significant impacts on health and the environment. The diagram below provides greater detail.
The impact of pollution depends on how much is emitted, how harmful it is and how it interacts with other substances in the air. It also depends on where it is emitted and how sensitive the exposed population or environment is. Vulnerable individuals and sensitive habitats are at particular risk. The combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, petrol and diesel are seen as the key pollutants of concern for most local authorities. The following image details the sources of air pollution and their effects.
What are the key pollutants?
The UK Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010 sets standards for a number of pollutants that can harm human health and the environment. There are five pollutants of particular concern within the UK:
- fine particulate matter (PM2.5)
- ammonia (NH3)
- nitrogen oxides (NOX)
- sulphur dioxide (SO2)
- non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs)
The release of these pollutants, contribute to localised and often high concentrations, which occur where pollutants build up in significant quantities in particular locations, for example near busy roads, industrial installations or large intensive farming operations. Exposure to high concentrations of pollutants, are more likely to directly result in adverse impacts, these impacts are cumulative, so measures need to be considered to reduce exposure at all stages of life, at home, when travelling, at school and at work.
The following link (Clean Air Strategy 2019) will provide further information on the UK Clean Air Strategy 2019.