Environment

Air pollution: How to protect yourself from the deadly consequences of dirty air

Every London borough exceeds toxic levels of deadly nitrogen dioxide, according to a recent city hall study.

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.

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“One of the issues with air pollution is that you can’t see it. It’s very difficult to understand or to visualise,” he said.

“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.

https://www.scottishairquality.scot/know-and-respond

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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“If you’re able to use active travel and not use your car, that’s really important,” he said.

“This is particularly important with older, more polluting cars.”

What role does the government have to play?

Individuals can take steps to reduce their exposure to pollutants – but regulatory solutions are urgently needed, explains Simon Birkett, founder and director of Clean Air in London.

“Put bluntly, air pollution affects everyone to some extent at every stage of their lives,” he said.

“So we must eliminate transport and building emissions as recommended by the Climate Change Committee and to protect health.

“The most vulnerable people will benefit most as they did when the Clean Air Act was introduced in 1956. 

Birkett supports the expansion of London’s ultra-low emissions zone, which charges vehicle-owners a £12.50 daily fee if they don’t meet exhaust fume standards.

The policy has been controversial, with some charities warning that they will struggle to deal with costs.

But Dexter claims that the health benefits are too important to pass up.

“It’s really something that we can’t afford to not take action on,” he said.

“And that’s why we need to see bold government leadership on this issue.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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