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Environment

Why is the UK’s air so polluted – and how can you check air pollution at your address?

A new bill named “Ella’s Law” will be put before parliament in an attempt to tackle air pollution – but how bad is dirty air in the UK – and what are its effects?

A new bill aiming to clean up the UK’s polluted air will be presented to parliament after a successful application by Green Party Peer Jenny Jones.

The bill will be named “Ella’s Law” as a tribute to nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah whose death from asthma was induced by high levels of air pollution where she lived in London.

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. 

The news comes after data revealed earlier in the month that almost 100 per cent of homes in the UK are surrounded by dangerous levels of air pollution which breach safe limits. 

Recent revelations about the high levels of pollution across the UK have led to widespread calls for action on the issue – but how did we get here in the first place, and how can we fix air pollution? Read on for everything you need to know.

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 air pollution so bad 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 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?

Both long- and short-term exposure to air pollution can lead to a range of health implications, according to the European Environment Agency. 

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Health problems linked to air pollution include lung cancers, strokes and respiratory infections. 

WHO has also demonstrated evidence of links between exposure to air pollution and type 2 diabetes, obesity and dementia.

In the UK, it’s estimated that air pollution causes the equivalent of 40,000 early deaths every year, with around seven million killed 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 will Ella’s Law do if it’s passed?

Alongside establishing a right to clean air and an air pollution commission to oversee government activities, Ella’s law would join up policies to combat indoor and outdoor air pollution with actions to combat the climate crisis. 

This would include annual reviews of the most up-to-date science. 

Jones said of her bill:

“Having a nice environment isn’t just a matter of ecology and science, it is a question of social justice. The clean air (human rights) bill would enshrine the human right to healthy air precisely and explicitly in UK law. A suitable date for the government to put it into law would be before the 70th anniversary of the Great Smog later this year”.

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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. 

What is the UK doing about air pollution?

Alongside Jones’ bill, the government is asking for views on air pollution targets in an ongoing consultation. 

The current targets for 2040 match the guidelines that were set by the WHO in 2005. Additionally, it is proposed to reduce average particle pollution by 35 per cent.

Campaigners have lambasted the targets as too distant, calling for steeper reductions in air pollution more quickly.

Boris Johnson has 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.”

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