The air we breathe

I wonder if we take our air for granted?  When we go about our everyday lives, how often do we consider if the air we breathe is polluted?  We are fortunate in the UK not to have visible polluted air that makes our eyes sting, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t experiencing poor air quality.  An illuminating chat with Professor Enda Hayes on the podcast very much opened my eyes to the extent of air pollution and how humans are both the cause and the victim.  Our conversation is the inspiration for this blog.

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What do we mean by air quality? 

Air quality is a term we use when describing how polluted the air is.  Pollutants arise from:

  1. Natural sources – occur from events/activities such as Sahara dust storms, Icelandic volcanic ash and biomass burning.
  2. Human activity (anthropogenic) – combustion is the main contributor; sources cover the energy sector, transport, domestic cooking and heating, waste dump sites, industrial activities and agriculture. 

The pollutants of concern to our health and ecosystems include particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), ozone (O₃), sulphur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO); the first two are the most problematic in UK towns and cities through vehicle emissions.

Air pollution and health

Air pollution is responsible for 7 million premature deaths each year globally, 400,000 in Europe and 40,000 in the UK.  Air pollution increases your risk of acquiring a cardiovascular or respiratory disease and dying from these diseases.

Air pollution is rarely mentioned as a cause of death, so it is perhaps unsurprising that these risks are not well understood by the public.  In 2013 the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debra was the first death in the UK to be ascribed to air pollution from traffic.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) sets Air Quality Guidelines for these pollutants, determining the levels necessary to protect public health.  Governments consider these values in tandem with their ability to adapt economically when deciding on legally-binding standards and goals for air quality management. 

Similarly to climate change, air pollution is more attributable to those with money, and the negative impacts fall more on those without money.  The reasons for this are multifactorial, such as poorer communities living closest to the sources of pollution (busy roads) and having poor health through lack of adequate nutrition/poor housing.

Monitoring pollutants

In 1997, the UK introduced the Local Air Quality Management process to ensure local authorities monitor air pollutants and implement an action plan if levels exceed targets.  Perhaps unexpectedly, exceedances were widespread; in the case of nitrogen dioxide, 70% of local authorities found at least one or more locations with levels above targets.

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The transition to cleaner air

Each place is different, so no one solution fits all.  For example, to reduce transport pollution in urban areas, encouraging active travel and public transport and restricting other vehicle access might be achieved in several ways.  It’s essential to recognise the limitations of people’s ability to change.  Tradespeople, such as electricians and plumbers, use their vehicles for transporting tools and materials as well as themselves.  Those people with mobility difficulties also need to be considered.

Change can occur at all levels:

  1. Government and local councils – changing infrastructure, perhaps introducing clean air zones.
  2. Businesses – encouraging employees to engage in active travel, implementing electric car fleets or car sharing schemes.
  3. Individuals – contributing through switching out the car for some trips.

Success stories

There are examples of places getting it right.  Ljubljana in Slovenia is a beautiful town transformed by a mayor on a mission to pedestrianise the city centre.  They undertook a phased approach consulting with people and businesses.  Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen are also exemplary cities; the Netherlands and Denmark are well-known for their cycling cultures.  The key to success is providing enabling mechanisms and infrastructure so that the greener option is easy and becomes the norm. 

The who and the why

It is essential for everyone to connect the dots between air pollution and health impacts.  Historically, this problem has been discussed by the what and the where.  What are the pollutants, what levels pose significant health risks and what are the sources?  Where are dangerous levels found?  This dialogue is very technical and can feel very much unrelated to our everyday lives. 

Addressing air pollution needs significant changes to how we all live, and for us to get on board with behaviour change, we need to get closer to understanding the problem.  Here is where the who and the why come in.  Taking transport as an example, rather than looking at what type of vehicles are more responsible, discover who is driving and why they are driving.  Do the people in these vehicles reflect a certain age, gender or income level, and to what purpose does the journey relate: a commute, school run, shopping or leisure activities?  These are the connections relatable to our daily lives.  

A way forward

We need to make the invisible visible and connect air quality to how we live and what this means to our health.  Who doesn’t want to breathe clean air; perhaps we don’t realise that we’re not.  I can see many parallels with the climate crisis, and it seems they are very much aligned, so making inroads on one is likely to benefit the other.  Less fossil fuel cars, for instance, will improve both air quality and carbon emissions and our health and future prospects.