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Why is the UK’s air so polluted – and how to check levels at your address

The government is set to miss its own targets on air pollution, a new report says – but how bad is the problem – and what are its effects?

The government is not on track to meet its own targets on air pollution, and is failing to inform the public about dirty air where they live, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

The NAO’s findings come as Clean Air Day is marked in the UK, with campaigners calling for more stringent action on dirty air in Britain.

Though air pollution has fallen in recent years, progress has been too slow, said the NAO, with low-income and ethnic minorities worst affected by the government’s inaction. 

Earlier in the year, fresh data revealed that almost 100 per cent of UK homes are surrounded by air pollution that breaches safe legal limits.

These revelations have sparked fresh calls for fast and decisive action on air pollution in the UK, but how did we get here in the first place? We’ve rounded up all you need to know about air quality in the UK – and how you can check risk levels at your address.

How bad is air pollution in the UK?

The most recent data collected by non-profit group the Central Office of Public Interest (Copi) and Imperial College London shows that more than 97 per cent of UK addresses are surrounded by unsafe levels of air pollution.

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Safe limits are set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which looks at three types of pollution to determine a safe level for each. 

Air pollution differs depending on where you are in the UK. Unsurprisingly, urban areas like London suffer higher levels of pollution than rural areas, where the population is smaller and more disparate.

Why is the UK’s air so polluted?

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 pollution in cities. 

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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.

What are the health impacts 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.

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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 the problem?

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. 

Boris Johnson has also 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. 

“The Prime Minister’s ambitious 10 Point Plan for the environment will see investment in zero-emission public transport, a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars brought forward to 2030, and the transformation of our national infrastructure to better support electric vehicles.

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.

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. 

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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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