Invisible, with no smell or taste, air pollution is a difficult enemy to know. Here we help you understand what it is, why it's so bad for you, and what you can do to reduce your exposure.
When we talk about air pollution in cities we are mainly talking about:
Nitrogen Dioxide (N02): This is a type of gas, often associated with vehicles, especially if they run on diesel
Particulate Matter (PM2.5): These are tiny particles suspended in the air. This is often caused by the wear and tear of car engines and braking, as well as dust blown in on the wind.
To find out more about the key air pollutants go to Asthma + Lung UK
In cities (where 83% of people in the UK live) one of the main sources of air pollution is road traffic; cars, vans, buses and lorries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says car exhaust emissions from road transport account for up to 30% of fine PM in urban areas, and 28% of nitrogen dioxide.
Another big contributor is wood burning; the smoke from barbecues, firepits and wood burners. Government figures show that more than a third of all PM2.5 in the UK in 2019 came from domestic sources, such as wood burning stoves.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) most recent guidelines were issued in September 2021, updating the previous guidelines that were issued in 2005. The targets were brought down, based on scientific and medical evidence that shows that millions of lives could be saved with lower levels of air pollution.
For more about the air pollution targets, visit WHO.
Children are shorter than adults, and closer to the ground. This means they are also closer to car exhausts, the source of many pollutants.
A child breathes in more air than an adult. A typical adult takes between 12 and 18 breaths each minute, a young child takes between 20-30, and a newborn takes as many as 30-40. This means children are taking in between 2-3 times as much polluted air as adults.
Children’s organs are still developing, and air pollution reduces their size. This is key as lung capacity peaks at 18, and then declines throughout the rest of a person’s life. If a person has lungs smaller than their body needs, they are at a higher risk of early death, as well as lung diseases.
Journeys children make every day, like going to school, are harmful to their lung health, as they are exposed to up to five times the amount of pollution compared to any other time. This is because the school run, particularly in the morning, is when most traffic is on the road. These high levels of pollution are hard to avoid, as much of the traffic is going to school, so is on the roads surrounding the school.
To find out more about air pollution and children go to Mums For Lungs.
Around two thirds of people who have asthma say air pollution makes it worse as it irritates airways and triggers asthma symptoms. In addition to this, medical research shows that in some cases air pollution causes asthma.
According to recent research, one in 12 new child asthma cases is related to nitrogen dioxide released by diesel vehicles.
Clinical data shows that a week after an air pollution spike, there is a huge increase in the number of people who go to their GP, with children the most affected. Week 38, in September, is when admissions to hospital with asthma is at its highest.
One in 11 children and young people have asthma in the UK. We have the highest level of occurrence, emergency admissions and deaths for childhood asthma in Europe.
Between eight and twelve children a year die of asthma in London. Asthma + Lung UK.
Asthma is a lung condition that makes it difficult to breathe.
Asthma is rarely diagnosed in children under five as it is difficult for them to do the necessary tests, and it could be that the main symptoms of coughing and breathlessness are caused by other conditions.
Asthma can’t be cured, but medicine can reduce the symptoms.
Air pollution is often worse in areas that are more ethnically diverse. Research in London shows that, even allowing for deprivation, areas where more than 20% of the population are non-white had the worst air pollution levels.
Other research shows that between 31 and 35% of areas with the highest proportion of black and mixed/multiple ethnicities are in areas with higher levels of air pollution, reducing to 15-18 % for Asian ethnic groups and just 4-5 % for white ethnic groups.
Follow ChokedUp for more on diversity and air pollution.
If you want to reduce your personal exposure to air pollution there are a few things you can do:
Check the government’s air pollution forecast. If air pollution is forecast high, change your routine to reduce your exposure.
Avoid pollution hotspots like main roads and take back routes away from busy streets when you can. Don’t drive - air pollution is higher inside a car than outside.
Walk short journeys, to reduce the amount of air pollution you produce.
For more information on reducing your exposure check the Asthma + Lung UK Website.