Air pollution is now at record levels nationwide. Health journalist Rosalind Ryan investigates how air pollution could be harming your health, with practical tips to protect yourself
We’re used to seeing pictures of smog-filled foreign cities such as Beijing, but the UK doesn’t need to worry about air pollution – right? Wrong. A recent survey by the University of Exeter discovered that two-thirds of us live in areas that the World Health Organisation says have ‘unsafe’ levels of air pollution.
What exactly is air pollution?
The main source of air pollution in towns and cities is from traffic emissions, but the Exeter researchers found those pollutants are now being dragged into rural areas by the wind and long-distance transport like lorries.
“Pollutants in the air are mostly gases and tiny particles, called particulate matter,” says Pauline Castres, policy and public affairs officer for the British Lung Foundation. “Gases like nitrogen dioxide, and minute particles including carbon, mineral dust and chemicals get drawn into the lungs, then into the bloodstream.”
Why air pollution is bad for our health
“Air pollution causes 40,000 early deaths in the UK every year. That’s more than obesity or alcohol,” says Ben Rider, from Friends of the Earth’s clean air team. “Dirty air leads to worsening asthma symptoms, heart disease and even lung cancer. Air pollution has also been associated with changes in the brain linked to dementia, and can lead to children growing up with smaller lungs.”
There is even research to show that air pollution is linked to diabetes, obesity and stroke. “We know that it affects all the organs in the body in some way, but it has a profound impact on the bloodstream and respiratory system,” says Chris Large, director for charity Global Action Plan, who co-ordinate Clean Air Day on 21 June.
Who is most at risk?
“Air pollution can affect everyone,” says Castres. “But people with lung conditions, the elderly and children are most vulnerable.” Children’s lungs and brains are still developing, while the elderly are more likely to have heart or lung conditions that are exacerbated by air pollution.
But who is exposed to the most pollution? An exercise by the Healthy Air Campaign, King’s College London and Camden council used members of the public to track exposure to air pollution in London. Interestingly, they found that travelling on foot or by bike exposed commuters to significantly fewer fumes than using a car or bus. Pollution levels that commuters in cars were exposed to was actually 3.5 times higher than for those walking, 5 times higher than for those cycling and 2.5 times higher than for commuters who traveled by bus.
“Think of cars like Pac-Man; as they drive along, they ‘eat’ up the pollution from the car in front” says Large. Drivers are also stuck in their cars, so they cannot walk or cycle out of any build-up of pollution, and it is much harder for pollutants to disperse once they get inside a car.
What can we do to protect ourselves?
First of all, don’t panic! Experts say the health benefits of walking or cycling outweigh the harmful effects of air pollution. Leave the car at home and jump on a bike or walk as often as you can. Rider says, “Nearly 70 per cent of all UK car journeys are short ones. Walking or cycling, rather than driving, will help reduce air pollution for everyone.”
There are plenty more ways you can help lower your risk:
- Set up a school car club. “There’s a triple whammy with air pollution when you’re a parent,” says Large. “Driving the kids to school causes more pollution, your children aren’t getting any exercise and they’re exposed to pollution in the car.” Why not take it in turns to do the school run? Then everybody benefits.
- Use the backstreets when walking to work. More research by King’s College London found that avoiding main roads and walking down side streets could cut your exposure to air pollution by an average of 53 per cent. Find a ‘clean air’ walking route in London here for example.
- Going jogging? Plan your run for when there are lower levels of pollution. Rider says, “Joggers inhale more pollution than walkers over the same distance. The best time for a run is generally early, before the day’s traffic affects air quality.”
- Use natural alternatives to clean your home. An increasing amount of research shows that cleaning products and air fresheners create high levels of indoor air pollution. “Try vinegar, baking soda and lemon juice,” says Castres. “Liquid or cream cleaners also release fewer pollutants than sprays.”
- Ditch the diesel. A government report found that diesel cars tend to have much higher nitrogen dioxide levels than petrol cars. Large says, “Explore alternatives, like electric cars. The fuel is really cheap and you’re helping to break that chain of pollution in traffic.”
- Get some pollution-busting plants for your home or the office. “Plants can help filter harmful compounds from the air. Peace lily, Boston fern and aloe vera all fit the bill,” says Rider – they are easy to look after, help scrub the air of toxins in a room and improve humidity.
- Switch off your engine in traffic jams. Castres says, “Idling contributes a lot to air pollution – both inside and outside the car.” Turn on the air recycling too, to help reduce pollutants entering your car.
- Check local air pollution levels. If you have asthma, a lung or heart condition, or are pregnant, it’s worth checking levels of air pollution before leaving home.
- Open the windows. “The number one thing to combat air pollution at home is ventilation,” says Large. “This lets in as much fresh air as possible and lets out any pollutants that have been building up.”
Air pollution is a cause for concern, however you can be proactive and lower your risk. From taking a slightly different route to work to loading up your office with plants, there are plenty of ways that you can reduce the amount of pollution that you’re exposed to in an average day.
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