Campaigners are promoting Clean Air Day to increase awareness of this largely invisible issue; they hope better understanding of the dangers will encourage changes in behaviour.
Threat to health
Research shows that up to 36,000 people in the UK die annually from causes linked to air pollution. In 2020, for the first time, air pollution was listed as a cause of death by a coroner. Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died in 2013, had been exposed to air pollution from traffic emissions which critically exacerbated her asthma. Those levels exceeded WHO guidelines, which state levels of three pollutants – PM2.5, PM10 and NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) – are particularly serious in the UK.
PM10 and PM2.5 are particulate matters from sources like fuel combustion, smoke and dust. The difference is size: PM10 can enter the lungs, but PM2.5 is small enough to pass further, into the bloodstream and organs. Nitrogen dioxide is a gas which can cause reduced lung function and premature death. It comes from vehicle emissions, but also natural sources like volcanoes. The WHO recognised in 2013 that air pollution is carcinogenic to humans.
It is worrying that levels of these pollutants are so high. Cities and flight path areas have high measures, but even in the countryside, pollution can be significant. Check your local area using this website. This site gives real time indications of PM2.5 levels in specific areas, and this one shows local air quality forecasts for the next few days.
What are the solutions?
The Government recognises that since 2016 transport is the largest emitting sector, so changing car and plane use is crucial in the fight to improve air quality. For example, in government analysis comparing CO2e emissions of different forms of transport from London to Glasgow, a petrol car emits ‘approximately 3.3 times more CO2e per passenger than the equivalent journey by train.’
Some authorities are taking steps to change public behaviour. Transport for London is consulting on expanding charging zones for high-emission vehicles. The aim is to improve health outcomes, save the NHS money and cut the congestion that costs London businesses £5.1 billion a year.
The German government is trialling increasing take-up of public transport by offering a monthly ticket for nine euros. France is outlawing short air flights to places that could instead be reached by train in less than 2.5 hours. The equivalent here would be, for example, London to Manchester.
Many UK schools are campaigning for improvements in the air their students breathe. They do this by promoting walking to school rather than travelling by car. Some schools ask parents to stop idling their car engines while waiting for children. (This is actually against Highway Code Rule 123).
The UK needs action now
As East Anglia Bylines has written about before, change is not happening fast enough, but this short clip from the Clean Air Fund shows how tackling dirty air would automatically improve many other problems we suffer from.
The Government is proposing a new limit of 10 µg/m3 for PM2.5 pollution by 2040. A current approximate measure in central Chelmsford, for comparison, is 12.58 µg/m3. However, the WHO last year reduced the PM2.5 guideline for annual exposure to 5 µg/m3. So the government proposal is far too little, far too late.
The charity Asthma+LungUK want the target reached by 2030 and have developed a ‘clean air consultation tool’ for you to have your say.
Changing the law
Green Party peer, Jenny Jones, has introduced a bill to protect the public against air pollution which has reached its second reading in the Lords. The bill would ‘enshrine the right to clean air in UK law across all forms of air pollution’. For it to work, we’ll need joined-up thinking across government departments on air pollution and climate change. Breathing fresh air should be a human right.