This article explains everything you need to know about air pollution. You’ll learn about its makeup, causes and impacts on health as well as how to prevent, mitigate and avoid air pollution. We also leave you with ideas about getting involved to further improve air quality.
If you or your loved ones are vulnerable to air pollution, check the air quality forecast before engaging in physical activity, particularly outdoors. Follow air pollution forecasts, such as DEFRA-Air or try the AirVisual app. The British Lung Foundation is also a great source for understanding forecasts and related health advice.
What is air pollution?
Air pollution is any substance in the air that causes harm. The most common air pollutants are nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter less than 10 micrometres (PM10 or PM2.5) – that’s about 1/5 of the diameter of a human hair! These pollutants are invisible to the naked eye but can pose a danger when inhaled. The World Health Organisation (WHO) sets guideline limits for each of the pollutants, as well as indoor mould and dampness, although most of the world’s population lives in areas where these limits are exceeded.
Causes of air pollution
Road traffic is the biggest contributor to air pollution, creating emissions from both tailpipe exhausts and tyre- and brake-wear. Industrial emissions, heating and cooking sources (including domestic gas boilers and wood burning stoves) also significantly reduce air quality.
Air pollution isn’t only experienced outdoors, however. Mould, dust and even pet hair can lead to poor indoor air quality.
Air quality fluctuates depending on weather, geography, distance from source emissions as well as a number of other factors. An immediate impact on air quality can be felt from events like marathons, when emissions are typically low, or bonfire nights and fireworks displays, when air quality is reduced.
Impacts on health
Air pollution increases the risk of some serious illnesses and can make existing health conditions worse. In the UK, an estimated 40,000 early deaths are linked to air pollution, specifically PM2.5 and NO2; in Southampton, that figure is about 110, mostly as a result of particulate matter.
People exposed to high levels of pollution may experience the immediate effects of irritated airways, shortness of breath and coughing, but existing respiratory conditions, like asthma and COPD, may also be exacerbated.
Long-term exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of developing lung and heart problems – even while in the womb. Research shows that air pollution:
contributes to about 1 in 13 cases of lung cancer;
can thicken arteries, increasing the risk for heart disease;
may increase the risk of bladder cancer;
increases the chances of dying from cardiac and respiratory conditions;
leads to more A&E visits and hospital admissions;
may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes;
is linked to low birth weight and premature births;
Studies are continuing to find more links between poor air quality and other health conditions as well.
Everyone has a role to play in reducing their contribution to air pollution and minimising its harmful effects.
Prevent air pollution
Think about the way you travel, especially for short trips. Walking and cycling produce no emissions and the health benefits of these travel choices outweigh the negative effects of air pollution.
Giving up smoking also has co-benefits, preventing the release of pollutants while also making you less vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. If you want help quitting, speak to a healthcare professional. Check out the support offered by NHS Smokefree.
Service your boiler annually. CO from faulty gas appliances and burning solid fuel can be deadly! For extra peace of mind, install a CO detector. Learn more about gas safety.
Prevent damp and mould by keeping your home at 40-65% relative humidity. You may find that opening windows or using an exhaust fan when cooking and washing, drying clothes outside, repairing leaks promptly and adequately heating your home help to maintain this sweet spot.
Look for products that have low or no Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These gases may be present in furniture, carpets, cleaning products, paints and aerosol sprays, just to name a few. Scented products may also emit potentially hazardous air pollutants (even candles!) so try to seek out those that are fragrance-free.
Mitigate air pollution
If you can’t ditch the car, drive smart. Don’t skimp on routine maintenance. Switch off your engine when stationary. Travel slow-and-steady instead of stop-and-go. Further advice on eco-driving can be found on the AA and Energy Saving Trust websites.
Carpooling is another great option if going car-free isn’t possible.
Consider an electric vehicle if you’re in the market for an upgrade as it doesn’t produce exhaust emissions.
Wood-burning stoves will emit less air pollution if you have a DEFRA approved stove, use authorised smokeless fuels and light it only when necessary. More information here.
Keep an eye on condensation in your home. Houses should ideally be kept between 40-65% relative humidity. Wiping away condensation will reduce the chances of mould forming. If you do get mould, clean it up as soon as possible.
Keep dust, pet hair and other allergens down by washing soft furnishings, vacuuming and mopping floors, using a doormat and removing shoes at the door.
Avoid air pollution
Change the way you travel. Pedestrians and cyclists are exposed to far less air pollution than drivers.
Choose a quiet route on side streets and away from heavy traffic to reduce your exposure to air pollution by up to 20%.
If driving, regularly change your air filters and when in heavy traffic, close your windows and switch off the fan/heater to help reduce your exposure.
Vulnerable populations should avoid strenuous activity when pollution is high. Find air quality forecasts and explanations at DEFRA and British Lung Foundation.
Use extractor fans and open windows, if it’s safe to do so, when cooking or cleaning – especially if using products with VOCs.
Close windows facing the road during rush hour or if you live on a busy street.
Fight back with indoor plants: they filter the air and absorb carbon dioxide. Win-win!
Your actions can help others breathe cleaner air. Here are some ideas for how to get involved:
Learn more about what air pollution is, how it affects your health, what you can do to protect yourself from it and the action you can take to tackle it from the Clean Air Hub.
Find a local walking or cycling route with the cleanest air.
Pledge to use active forms of transport, especially when traveling to work or school.
Take a smarter driving course. The Blue Lamp Trust offers an Eco-Safe Driving Course.
Become a smart online shopper by using collection points. The last mile is often the most inefficient and expensive for deliveries. If you’re looking for a courier, search for zero emissions delivery services like Zedify.
Get a houseplant (or two!). Read NASA’s Clean Air Study for a list of the most effective air-filtering plants.
Follow air pollution forecasts, particularly if you have pre-existing health conditions, like asthma.
Host an event on Clean Air Day, be it a school walking bus, a street party or a seminar – get creative!