Toxic air is extremely dangerous and poses a huge risk to our health. In the UK, it’s our biggest environmental threat.
Right now, the level of pollutants in our air is dangerously high. Not only are we above the air pollution limited advised by the World Health Organization, we’re breaking them four times over.
The UK’s air pollution is so bad, it contributes to up to 43,000 premature deaths every year – over 7% of all our annual deaths. It’s also causing diseases like asthma, heart disease and lung cancer.
Plus, it’s costing our NHS and social care systems billions. By 2035, Public Health England estimates that this number could be as high as £18.6 billion.
That’s why we’re taking action to ensure that the government brings in new, better legislation that cleans up the air in the UK.
What is air pollution?
Air pollutants are any particles in the air that can be harmful to our health. There are many different pollutants, but some are more dangerous than others.
In the UK, two of the most common and hazardous pollutants are:
- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is a gas that comes from combustion processes, like
those that power the engines of road petrol and diesel vehicles.
- Particulate matter (PM), particularly PM2.5. Small, airborne particles which primarily
come from vehicles, wood burning, industrial processes and farming.
Particulate matter comes in many sizes, but the most dangerous particles are the smallest ones – PM2.5 and PM10. At this size, the particles can pass through our lungs into our bloodstream, where they can affect our organs. In 2013, the World Health Organization classified these particles as cancer-causing.
Particulate matter also includes small particles of black carbon, which are bad for our health and contribute to climate change.
- PM2.5 refers to particles with a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns. These are known as fine particles. The smallest fine particles, less than 0.1 microns in diameter, are called ultrafine particles.
Where does air pollution come from?
Air pollution has many different sources, from factories and industry to cigarette smoke. The most common sources include:
Every day, cars, trucks and other road vehicles release hazardous nitrogen dioxide (NO2) into the air. Diesel vehicles release the most NO2. In urban areas, vehicles can be responsible for up to 70% of air pollution.
Burning wood or coal on open fires or solid fuel stoves releases fine particulate matter into the air (often referred to as PM2.5). It is the single greatest source of PM2.5 in our air, responsible for 38%.
Construction and workplace emissions
Energy generation and industrial combustion combined are responsible for 41% of the nitrogen dioxide in our air, leaving those working in these industries at increased risk of inhaling polluted air.
Manure and fertilisers can release toxic chemicals like ammonia into the air, creating air pollution.
Why is air pollution so dangerous?
Breathing in toxic air can be deadly. As well as being linked to up to 43,000 deaths a year in the UK, air pollution is also causing respiratory diseases, heart disease, lung cancer and has even been linked to conditions like dementia and mental health conditions.
Air pollution is dangerous for everyone, but some groups are more at risk than others.
People with living with lung conditions like asthma and COPD and people with cardiovascular diseases are particularly vulnerable.
Pregnant women exposed to air pollution are at greater risk of premature delivery and complications like pre-eclampsia. Toxic air can also have a negative impact on the health of an unborn foetus. Infants and children that breathe in dirty air can grow up with impaired lung function and develop respiratory disease more easily.
Older people are more vulnerable to air pollution, as it can heighten pre-existing health problems such as respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
Cyclists and people who work outside are also at greater risk, as they breathe in polluted air more often.
In the UK, low income and ethnic minority communities are also at greater risk, as their neighbourhoods are statistically more likely to be pollution hotspots.
Why isn’t our government doing more about air pollution?
The fact is, the air we breathe in the UK is so heavily polluted, it’s illegal. In 2021, the EU Court of Justice found the UK guilty of “systematically and persistently” breaching air pollution limits for years.
The result? The UK has the highest death rate from lung conditions in Western Europe. London in particular remains one of the worst cities for toxic air, with the highest recorded levels of nitrogen dioxide out of all European capitals. It’s also where most people are dying from air pollution in Britain.
Our government should be taking urgent action – but it’s not.
Current air pollution targets to tackle this public health emergency are underwhelming, falling short of the World Health Organization’s guidelines and increasing ambition in the EU. This is despite the evidence showing how much damage air pollution is doing to our health.
The Healthy Air Coalition wants to change air pollution laws and policy, so that everyone in the UK can breathe clean, safe, healthy air.
Supported by more than 25 members, we’re campaigning for ambitious new proposals on air pollution limits, while also thinking about policies and schemes that tackle toxic air at a local level like clean air zones around schools and a switch to cleaner forms of road transport.