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Why Behavioural Change is Key to Improving Personal Pollution Exposure

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Air Quality & Human Health

domestic woodburner

Air pollution can disperse and infiltrate the air around us and other people. When we decide to heat our homes by burning wood, when and where we choose to travel using petrol and diesel fuelled vehicles, and other daily decisions can accelerate the volume of toxic pollutants, like nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5­), that enters the atmosphere.

Subject to meteorological factors such as wind speed and temperature, air pollution can spread and get into the air that our families, neighbours, and the rest of the community is breathing, and this is when it becomes a problem. Increased exposure means an increased likelihood of inhaling air pollution, which comes with a host of health implications.

Some people are more vulnerable to air pollution exposure than others. People with existing respiratory and cardiovascular issues feel the effects of air pollution with worsened symptoms, children can suffer with stunted development as they grow older, and the elderly are less likely to be able to compensate for the effects of exposure, meaning they’re more likely to end up in hospital. This is something that tragically happened to Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl from London who passed away as a result of severe air pollution induced asthma attacks and was the first person the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.

There is no one that is exempt from the effects of air pollution – it affects everyone in the short and long term. So how can local authorities reduce the impacts of air pollution exposure on public health?

Behavioural Change & Why it Matters

people running in a field

We’re creatures of habit and once we’re in a routine of doing things in a certain way, it’s unlikely to change. However, with environmental issues closing in on us, we’ve got to change and start doing things differently. We must encourage the many to make choices that reduce emissions, lower our impact on the planet and minimise community wide pollution exposure.

Encouraging behavioural change is a strategy that local authorities can employ to change the decisions that people typically make on a day-to-day basis. It follows the principles of Nudge Theory, which aims to influence individuals to make better decisions by shaping their environment.

When it comes to working towards cleaner air, the challenge is engaging whole communities and empowering them to make decisions that proactively improve air quality. The Department for Transport (DfT) has reported that cars are the most popular method of travel with 59% of car trips being under 5 miles. Stats like this are the evidence we need to encourage people to avoid creating unnecessary emissions for activity such as travelling, as shorter journeys could be walked instead. We might encourage people to cycle, use public transport, or to avoid burning materials, or give people the means to make other informed decisions based on current conditions.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that in most cities the appropriate infrastructure that promotes active travel, such as cycle lanes and pedestrianised areas, is unlikely to be accessible. Lots of places outside of London are devoid of reliable public transport infrastructure too. In some areas, buses have infrequent, limited routes and train stations are costly, especially compared to the rest of Europe. So, as we wait for the government to introduce the proper resources, it’s possible to make a task which may seem out of reach attainable – by providing the necessary information to encourage behavioural change on a wide scale.

Making the Invisible, Visible

zephyr air quality monitor

To instigate changes in behaviour, local authorities have to acknowledge their pollution problems, which is the reason why we’re trusted by over 70 councils in the UK alone, who we’re helping to support with our air quality products and services. They can face their challenges with a host of measures, such as baseline monitoring through introducing air quality services which indicate when, where and why pollution issues are arising.

Alternatively, we can install and maintain Zephyr® air quality monitoring networks for councils wanting to identify real-time air quality concentrations, create MappAir® pollution dispersion models for insight into areas where monitors are not installed, and develop public portals which make air quality data visible to all. After acknowledging pollution challenges, air quality data can made available to the public, helping to raise awareness and encourage changes in every day behaviour.

myair public air quality portal

One way to make air quality visible to the public is with information portals. Integrating the complete EarthSense technology service, public portals give communities access to air quality data and supporting information via desktop or mobile app. With real-time, simplified pollution measurements and mapped dispersion modelling, they can identify air quality levels, see where pollution episodes are occurring and receive guidance about how to reduce levels and manage their exposure. Through access to the portal, individuals can use the information to ensure that they’re making decisions, like how and when they choose to travel or how they decide to warm their homes, that improve air pollution levels and exposure.

We’ve also developed application programming interfaces (APIs) for MappAir® and Zephyr® data, meaning air quality information can be integrated into third party systems and used by members of the public. So, councils can integrate air quality data into routing applications to allow pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists to visualise air quality and plan routes that minimise their exposure or alternative routes that avoid hotspots. Routing apps provide members of the public with current and predicted conditions, allowing them to plan ahead during challenging conditions and make informed choices about where, when, and how they travel.

How Behavioural Change Can Help to Reduce Pollution Exposure

myair air quality public portal in sandwell faith centre

Publicly available air quality data acts as a talking point and educates people by making what otherwise would possibly be invisible and unconsidered, something to keep in mind when making daily choices. With accessible data and an increased number of people making changes to their everyday behaviour, this encourages other people to make the same changes which in turn, helps to create safer air quality for the community. It’s effectively teamwork that reduces emissions on a large scale.

We’ve been part of projects that are great examples of empowering behavioural changes for improving pollution exposure. Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council’s project ‘Sandwell’s Faith Communities for Clean Air’ has seen them work alongside faith leaders to educate people about air quality for empowering behavioural change. Zephyr® monitors have been installed at eight faith centres in Sandwell, and a public portal is being displayed on TV screens inside the reception areas, acting as a conversation starter for faith communities. Leveraged by its air pollution officers, public health officers and air quality toolkits, faith leaders and the community are learning everything they need to know about air quality and making the changes they need for a safer and more sustainable Sandwell.

We’ve also worked with the BBC on a documentary called ‘Fighting for Air’, which was centred around public engagement and behavioural change with community action group Kings Heath CAN. We wanted to show how small changes in daily decisions can help to reduce exposure to poor air quality, so car free zones at a local school and high streets were implemented and hedges were built to shield people from air pollution. Free bus transport was implemented to encourage the use of public transport during short journeys, children were encouraged to walk to school, and parents were advised to leave their cars at home. As a result, NO2 reduced by 20% at the school site, and by 10% on the high street – clearly showcasing that localised behavioural change is effective at improving personal pollution exposure.

Do you want to find out more about how you can use air quality services to drive behavioural change in your area?

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