What Is Air Pollution And What Can We Do About It? 5 Big Questions Answered

Everything you need to know about causes and effects, plus how to protect yourself.

Air pollution isn’t just an issue for faraway cities like Beijing – it’s also a problem that affects our cities, towns and villages closer to home. Just this week, environmental charity Friends of the Earth reported that air pollution now exceeds safety limits in almost 2,000 locations across the UK.

But what does that mean for those people who live, work, or go to school or college in those areas? We asked experts to explain what air pollution is, where it comes from, and how it affects us. Here’s everything you need to know.

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What Is Air Pollution?

According to The British Lung Foundation, an air pollutant is any substance in the air that could harm people. There are lots of different types of pollution and some are more harmful than others when we breathe them in.

Dr Matthew Loxham, an air pollution expert from the University of Southampton, explains: “The best definition of air pollution I’ve seen is that it’s any substance in the air that can impact human life, animal life and plant life.”

Where Does Air Pollution Come From?

Lots of sources, particularly cars.

Road vehicles are a major cause of pollution, says Dr Loxham. According to Defra, cars give off particulate matter (PM) – tiny specs of pollution that we breathe directly into our lungs. These harmful specs don’t just come from engine emissions, but from tyre and brake wear, as well as other non-exhaust emissions. They also create nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – which causes inflammation of the airways and can impact lung function if you’re constantly exposed to it – as well as butadiene and benzene (human carcinogens) and carbon monoxide.

Any transport that requires fuel, including planes and ships, pollutes our environment – and manufacturing and construction can cause pollution, too.

A recent study also found the London Underground to be polluted, and claimed travelling on the London underground for one hour could expose you to as much air pollution as spending an entire day by a busy road.

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There’s also pollution in your home.

Fuels burned in the home, such as wood and coal for heat, pollute the air. Open fire fuels and some log burners will soon be banned by environment secretary Michael Gove as part of the government’s Clean Air Strategy. This is because they are big sources of particulate matter (PM) emissions.

Any smoke we breathe is bad for us, says the British Lung Foundation, including bonfires. When you cook with gas or electricity, tiny particles are also released that are easily inhaled, the charity says. The best way to control this is to turn on an extractor fan, or make sure your home is well ventilated.

Everyday items including scented candles, room sprays and even paint can pollute the air we breathe. However, most of us can tolerate some pollution – it comes down to the amount you’re inhaling and for how long.

“A certain amount of everything is toxic,” says Dr Loxham. “If I gave you a litre of water with half a kilo of table salt dissolved in it you’d probably be quite unwell. It’s to do with how long we’re exposed to it.”

But, the world could never be pollution-free.

While air pollution is largely a man-made problem, there are also natural sources that are unavoidable. Forest fires, sand storms that kick up dust, sea spray, volcanic eruptions and a high pollen count can also create problems – even when they start hundreds of miles away from where you live.

Problems can also be exacerbated when it’s hot and the wind is still, or when it’s really cloudy, because pollutants don’t disperse as much as they would on a typical day.

While campfires are cosy and fun, they are also a source of pollution
vgajic via Getty Images
While campfires are cosy and fun, they are also a source of pollution

Will Pollution Affect My Health?

Most of us can deal with a certain level of pollution, but it’s problematic when lots of different pollutants come together. Pauline Castres, policy and public affairs officer at the British Lung Foundation, describes this as a “cocktail” that can be damaging to health. The charity is concerned about air pollution in the UK, she says, particularly for those living with lung conditions such as asthma.

People with pre-existing respiratory illnesses such as asthma, as well as the sick, elderly and the young are most at risk, says Castres, but there is growing evidence that healthy people could be at risk from exposure over time, too.

“We started campaigning on air pollution when we found that nine out of 10 patients with preexisting lung conditions told us they struggle to breathe on high pollution days. We are worried because the evidence is strong showing that air pollution has a devastating impact on health.”

According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution is a responsible factor in a “significant” number of deaths. This doesn’t mean that air pollution directly killed these people, but it does suggest it played a role. In the UK, the family of a nine-year-old girl who died of an asthma attack claim her death was linked to unlawful levels of air pollution.

What Can I Do To Protect Myself Against Air Pollution?

“Try and avoid traffic for a start,” Dr Loxham says. “If you can steer clear of streets that are heavily trafficked, then you’re keeping away from emissions.”

If that’s not possible, he says, there is some evidence that walking on the side of the pavement furthest from the road can reduce your exposure. Walking, in general, is better than travelling inside a vehicle, because you’re less exposed to other pollutants from the car. “The best thing is to keep on roads that are less busy,” he says.

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Should I Wear A Face Mask For Protection?

Dr Loxham says there isn’t much evidence that face masks work that well, although they might have a “very small effect” in protecting you. This is because the particles which are the worst for us are so small, that a filter which stops them would have to be almost airtight – so you wouldn’t be able to breathe through it. “We’re talking about particles that are about a 20,000th of a millimetre,” he says.

If you do have a lung condition or struggle to breathe on high pollution days, the British Lung Foundation recommends avoiding busy roads and exercising outdoors. On days when pollution levels are low, though, the charity says you don’t need to be worried about going outside. It also recommends travelling to work or school earlier, so you can avoid the rush hour.

Check out daily pollution forecasts on the government’s UK Air forecast here.