Air Quality and You
All you need to know about air pollution and how you can make a difference to the health of you, your family and the environment through three simple steps.
1. Be Informed
What is air pollution?
Different areas of the UK have different levels of air pollution with most UK towns and cities experiencing high levels of air-borne pollutants. These include nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3), particulate matter under 10 microns (PM10) and 2.5 microns (PM2.5), which can be damaging to human health and the environment.
What causes air pollution?
The main source of air pollution is burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, for heating, cooking and transportation; with road traffic emissions known to be a significant contributor. Usually, the main source of NO2 in cities is road traffic emissions. Other sources which contribute to background NO2 concentration include commercial, industrial and domestic sources.
What determines the air quality?
Air quality is determined by a combination of weather conditions and pollutants emitted and dispersed into the air by sources mentioned above.
How does air pollution affect my health?
Exposure to high pollution episodes can cause immediate harm to everyone by:
-Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
-Wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and breathing difficulties
-Worsening of existing lung and heart problems, such as asthma.
As the heart, lungs and blood cells pump oxygen to every part of the body, they also come into contact and carry along toxic pollutants like NO2, O3, PM10 and PM2.5. The body must therefore work harder to supply oxygen and overcome the effects of these chemicals, causing the above symptoms.
Is everyone effected the same?
Air pollution does affect everyone as we all share the same air. Some people however, are especially vulnerable to particulates and ground-level ozone. These sensitive populations include children, older adults, people who are active outdoors, and people with heart or lung diseases, such as asthma. If you are sensitive to air pollution, you need to be aware of steps you can take to protect your health, and resources that can support you in this. Public Health England have some easily accessible information, along with NICE. MappAir100 can be invaluable in identifying pollution hot spots and reducing exposure by finding cleaner alternatives. If in doubt always consult your GP or a medical professional.
What are the short-term & long-term impacts of air pollution?
In the short term, air pollution can contribute to heart and lung problems
which result in increased hospital-admissions and premature deaths of vulnerable children, elderly, the sick and the poor.
In the long-term, air pollution can cause permanent harm to lungs and the whole body resulting in asthma, bronchitis, cancer and shortened life span.
Research also suggests a link with adult kidney disease, fertility and sperm count, dementia and lower attention span of children in schools. It has even been seen to change DNA and affect the baby in utero resulting is low birth weights. We are only just beginning to understand how dangerous air pollution really is.
Just how serious is air pollution in the UK?
In the UK, as many as 50,000 people a year may die prematurely because of it, raising to 2 million people worldwide. Poor air quality may also reduce average UK life expectancy by 7-8 months (road traffic incidents result in a reduction of just 1-3 months in comparison).
Does air pollution effect the environment too?
Environmental effects can be substantial, affecting the growth of vegetation directly as well as indirectly, by changing the acid and nutrient status of soil and water. The results may include acid rain (damaging crops and humans), accelerated eutrophication (loss of biodiversity), toxic haze (particulates react with sunlight to change visibility), and similar respiratory effects in animals.
Where can I get more information?
The World Health Organisation provide good information on air quality and its impact. They also provide governments with guidance on thresholds and limits for key air pollutants that pose health risks, for example the current WHO guideline value for Nitrogen Dioxide is of 40 µg/m3 (annual mean). Anything above this is considered unhealthy exposure levels. DEFRA, currently under the EU Directive, use the same exposure limit. All the current UK target values are found here.
What else do I need to know?
Air pollution is affected by weather and you can sign up to air pollution alerts which will help you decide on what action you should take. DEFRA provide guidance here and the Met Office provide the air quality forecasts online weather service. Most newspapers and online journals also have an environmental section which reports on topical stories of air quality. You can also check our EarthSense company news page and social media to keep up to date on the latest air quality developments.
2. Take Action
Although air pollution is invisible, our products and services enables us to visualise the problem so you can have a better idea of the air you breathe. Additionally, there are some key actions you can take to mitigate the effect of air pollution on you, your home and your environment. Behaviour change and community engagement can transform the air quality in your area.
Reduce activity during pollution spikes
Anyone experiencing discomfort such as sore eyes, cough or sore throat should consider reducing activity, particularly outdoors. Adults and children with lung and heart problems, should reduce strenuous physical exertion, particularly outdoors, if they experience symptoms. People with asthma may need to use their reliever inhaler more often. Older people should also reduce physical exertion. Do check the news and weather (met office bulletins) for more information
Ditch the car
Believe it or not driving in air pollution is worse than cycling or walking. Just sitting inside your car in a traffic jam will expose you to 10 times the pollution compared to outside due to tail pipe fumes coming into the car from the vehicles directly in front. Therefore, walking or cycling to work or school (using a cleaner route) are healthier than driving, if practical and safe to do so. You also have the additional benefit of exercising at the same time, with all the added physiological, social and environmental benefits.
Find a cleaner alternative route
Walk or cycle on quiet routes, or find routes at least 50 metres away from busy roads. This will limit your exposure to traffic borne air pollution as pollution levels significantly drop with distance. Dense, green foliage can also form a protective screen to toxic pollution, when visibility and safety are not compromised.
Avoid cycling or running on main roads during peak hours
You’ll breathe in two to three times more air containing fumes than in a car or bus.
If you need to drive...
Share the journey
Why not use public transport or car pooling schemes where possible? This reduces the number of circulating vehicles, congestion, journey times and air pollution.
Don’t be idle
Don’t let your car engine idle, particularly outside of a school or building, as the pollutants can enter the building and have less opportunity to dissipate.
Simple things go a long way in helping the environment and your car.
Check the engine regularly, change the fuel and air filters annually, inflate tires appropriately, fill your car after sunset to reduce smog (this will keep evaporative emissions from reacting with sunlight to form ozone pollution (smog)).
Accelerate as smoothly as possible
Use of the throttle is the major cause of urban exhaust emissions, affecting you inside the car as well as those outside the car. Drive smoothly and avoid unnecessary or sudden accelerations.
Turn the car’s air conditioning to internal circulation
Only recirculate the air inside, rather than sucking in pollution from the road, particularly if behind buses and lorries. This should only be used for a limited time however as you are recycling air inside the vehicle which may already be polluted.
Switching to an alternative fuel vehicle is better for the environment and your wallet. There are fully electric, hybrid fuel and fuel-efficient cars available with more options increasingly on the market from car manufacturers, so it is getting easier to find the right option.
Ventilate your home
It is important to keep your home well-aired to reduce the build-up of indoor pollutants, but try and limit opening windows facing a busy road to quiet times if possible. The British Lung Foundation has some good advice on indoor pollution.
Avoid aerosols like hairspray, furniture polish, cooking sprays, bathroom cleaners, air fresheners, antiperspirants, insecticides and hobby craft sprays. Choose solids, sticks and gels instead, but avoid over use of scented candles which may also generate indoor air pollution.
If you are renting or already own your own home, try and spend time in well-ventilated rooms facing away from traffic and busy roads. If you are looking to buy, why not use Future Climate Info environmental reports that include our MappAir® air quality data to choose an area away from pollution hot-spots, with lots of greenery and open spaces.
Be energy efficient
Common sense ideas include switching off lights and appliances when not in use, consider solar energy and energy efficient lighting, insulate your house and water heater. These will mean you save energy on your utility bills as less fuel is also burnt in power stations so less emissions
3. Spread the Word
Get in touch/make contact
There are numerous air quality consultants who can advise on mitigation strategies for your home if you concerned for a fee, and there are many local action groups who can often provide support. Your Local Authority will also have a dedicated air quality or environmental team who you can contact and may be able to give you site measurements of pollution in your area.
Why not write to your MP or local cycling pressure group for advice or
support? You can also write to the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) which advises the government on all matters concerning the health effects of air pollutants. Find out more here.
You (yes, you) can set up your own community action project to address air pollution in your local area. In recognition of the success of Dr Xand and Kings Heath, EarthSense are providing a fantastic Community Action Pack for monitoring and acting on air quality. Click here to find out more