London has some of the worst air pollution levels in the country – but other urban centres aren’t much better. Credit: canva (mat_hias via Pixabay)
The UK’s cities are breathtaking – for all the wrong reasons. Every London borough exceeds toxic levels of deadly nitrogen dioxide, according to a recent city hall study.
Nearly half of the capital’s boroughs (14 of 32) surpass the UK’s legal limits for the pollutant, which is churned out by cars, motorbikes, and buses.
Things don’t get any better outside the capital. Manchester’s nitrogen dioxide concentration is five times higher than the World Health Organisation recommends, closely followed by Birmingham (4.9 times higher), Glasgow (4.5 times) and Liverpool (4.3 times). Even in the remote Scottish borders, the gas exists at concentrations that are double the safe threshold.
The health consequences can be dire. Air pollution contributes to up to 40,000 premature deaths per year in the UK alone, increasing heart disease and stroke risk and triggering the growth of lung tumours.
So how can you protect yourself?
How to protect yourself from air pollution
The “invisibility” of air pollution means some people don’t take it seriously, explained Tim Dexter, Clean Air Lead at Asthma and Lung UK.
“But it doesn’t mean that it’s not there and it doesn’t mean that it can’t have a really serious impact on your health.”
But you can reduce your risk of adverse health outcomes by following a few simple steps.
Sign up for air pollution alerts
Air pollution levels can change depending on the weather. On sunny days, some pollutants undergo chemical reactions and form harmful ozone. Wind can disperse pollution – but can also transport pollutants like Saharan dust to other continents. Low pressure systems can act as a ‘lid’ that prevents poor quality air from escaping.
To keep track of these changing conditions, sign up to Defra alerts. The environmental authority provides regular pollution updates across the UK.
You can also get air pollution alerts on the @DefraUKAir Twitter feed or by calling the Defra helpline on 0800 55 66 77.
“These alerts are really important, because it means people aren’t going outside and exposing themselves to something that can be particularly harmful, especially if you have a respiratory issue,” Dexter said.
Depending where you live, you may be able to sign up to a localised alert. airText offers free text updates for London, Chelmsford, Colchester or Cambridge.
If you’re in Northern Ireland, you can subscribe to the Air Aware text alert service.
In Scotland, the Know & Respond service sends registered users a message when air pollution reaches dangerous levels.
Use less busy routes
Air pollution can be “hyperlocal,” Dexter explained.
“Even if you’re in the countryside, but your house is right next to a busy road, you’ll be exposed to higher levels of air pollution,” he said.
Where possible, avoid busy, traffic-heavy routes. In fact, you can slash your exposure to air pollution by a third simply by walking on the inside of the pavement, according to a government study.Keeping your car windows closed when driving, especially in slow-moving traffic, will also help avoid the fumes.
Think about indoor air quality
You can take steps to improve air quality within the home, too. This might involve limiting individual sources of pollution. Common culprits include gas stoves, so make sure you run your extraction fan while cooking. Don’t burn a wood stove, which will spread pollutants and particulates throughout your home.
Good news for lazy people – you now have an excuse to clean less. Many cleaning products contain Volatile Organic Compounds, chemical gases that have been linked to a spectrum of health issues.
Think about reducing your own contribution to air pollution
We all have a role to play in reducing pollution, said Dexter – and taking “greener and cleaner forms of travel” is a crucial step.
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