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How polluted is the UK’s air – and how does it affect your household?

Almost 100 per cent of UK homes are affected by unsafe levels of air pollution – here’s what that means for you and your health.

Cities and towns around the world are celebrating World Car Free Day by taking motor vehicles off the road to enjoy streets with less noise and air pollution

Led each year by charity Living Streets, World Car Free Day invites communities to ditch cars for a day and experience all the benefits of city streets without motor vehicles. 

Air pollution is one of the most serious threats posed by cars in the UK, leading to between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths every year.

Earlier this year, a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) concluded that the UK is failing to meet its own targets on improving air quality while also failing to inform the public about how dirty the air is where they live.

The report came after data revealed that almost 100 per cent of addresses in the UK are surrounded by levels of pollution that breach the limits deemed “safe” by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

But how did we get here in the first place? How polluted is the UK’s air – and how is it affecting you and your household? Here’s everything you need to know.

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How bad is air pollution in the UK?

According to the most recent data collected by non-profit group the Central Office of Public Interest (Copi) and Imperial College London, almost 100 per cent (97 per cent) of addresses in the UK are situated in areas with unsafe levels of dirty air.

WHO is responsible for setting “safe” limits of air pollution, with measurements covering several different types. The most common are:

  • particulate matter
  • nitrogen dioxide
  • ozone
  • sulphur dioxide

Air pollution levels will be different depending on where you live, as well as current weather conditions.

Unsurprisingly, urban locations like London have higher levels of pollution generally than more rural locations. 

A number of studies have shown that the most disadvantaged communities, as well as BAME communities, are disproportionately impacted by air pollution.

What are the main causes of poor air quality in the UK?

Though London is particularly affected by air pollution, most places in the UK – especially cities – have high levels of dirty air. 

Even at times of lower pollution levels, many parts of the UK regularly breach World Health Organisation (WHO) limits for what’s considered a “safe” level of pollution. 

The problem of air pollution has largely grown worse because of increasing levels of private car ownership, with vehicles one of the main sources of air pollution in cities. 

Farming, industry and emissions from power generation can also contribute to the problem, while many households pollute indoor air through things like open fires and heaters.

Natural events – such as volcanoes and dust storms coming over from abroad – can also temporarily cause spikes in air pollution. Londoners were warned to limit their physical activity earlier this year as air pollution levels spiked in the city, putting the issue of dirty air in the headlines once again.

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What are the main effects of air pollution?

According to the European Environment Agency, both long- and short-term exposure to dirty air can have far-reaching impacts on human health.

Some of the health issues linked to air pollution include respiratory illnesses, strokes and lung cancers.

WHO has also established links between air pollution and type 2 diabetes, dementia, and obesity.

In the UK alone, around 40,000 deaths annually can be attributed to air pollution, while around seven million are killed by dirty air worldwide.

In 2020, nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah became the first person to have air pollution attributed to her death by a coroner, who ruled that toxic air had contributed to her death from an asthma attack in 2013. 

The incident led her mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, to become a clean air campaigner, with many other campaign groups springing up following the judgement. 

What is the government doing about dirty air?

The government is currently consulting on a target to reduce air pollution by a third compared to 2018 levels by 2040.

The target has been criticised by numerous campaigners, however, for being unambitious, allowing twice as much small-particle pollution in England as is recommended by WHO. 

Campaigners also say the target is too far in the future, meaning many more people will suffer from the impacts of air pollution in the meantime. 

The NAO has now said that the government is not even on track to meet its 2030 target, with existing measures not going far enough to curb air pollution. 

Former PM Boris Johnson promised a “green industrial revolution” to tackle the climate crisis and improve air quality, which includes banning wholly petrol and diesel vehicle sales by 2030. 

Various cities, including London, have proposed clean air zones to encourage less car use – but many of these plans have been met with controversy by those who say it disadvantages those who can’t afford to switch to less polluting vehicles. 

A government spokesperson said: “Air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010. But we know there is more to do, which is why we are taking urgent action to curb the impact air pollution has on communities across England through the delivery of our £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution. 

“Through our landmark Environment Bill, we have committed to set an ambitious target on PM2.5 alongside a long-term target on air quality. 

Outside of the government itself, Green Party Peer Jenny Jones is set to present a bill to parliament which aims to clean up the UK’s dirty air.

The bill will be named “Ella’s Law” as a tribute to nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who was the first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate after suffering a fatal asthma attack in 2013. 

The bill is looking to establish a right to clean air along with a commission to oversee the government’s progress on cleaning up air pollution. 

How can I check if my area is polluted?

Copi has created a free interactive tool which allows you to check air pollution levels at your address by simply inputting your postcode.

The tool will rank your address against national pollution levels, placing it in a percentile depending on where it sits for dirty air.

Buckingham Palace is in the 98th percentile, while Balmoral Castle in Scotland has the cleanest air and is in the zero percentile.

Towns and cities with the most homes in the top 10th percentile include Slough in Berkshire, London, Leeds, Manchester and Reading.

The tool also has a “take action” feature which invites users to sign the petition to make air pollution disclosure a legal requirement for estate agents.

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