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Clean air

Clean air is the air which we want to breath. Good air quality is when air pollution is below limits set for good health. Clean air also meets our concerns about climate change: it's more than a local phenomenon. Air is between us; and between our conflicting needs and wants for ourselves and the space in which we live. It's contested.

The air around us

Photo showing air pollution on 11 December 2013. View from Croydon, London. Photo by Andrew J Pelling

Photo: Photo showing air pollution on 11 December 2013. View from Croydon, London. Photo by Andrew J Pelling (Twitter:

In the context of outdoor air ('ambient air'), the smogs of the 1950s and in particular the 'Great London Smog' of 1952 are well recorded. About 4,000 people are thought to have died in the immediate aftermath of that smog. Now, concern about air quality is the air pollution which is less visible than the belching chimneys of industry and domestic coal fires of the 1950s. Today, the sources of air pollution vary but air pollution from vehicles is the most prevalent source in most towns and cities. This pollution is mostly invisible and diffuse.

On a day with high pollution levels or smogs – a pollution episode, a yellow brown haze may be visible on the horizon of our towns and cities. In urban centers this pollution is not just in the distance but above our heads; it's in street in which we're standing and indeed, the air which we're breathing. Even when pollution is not visible; air pollution is still present and often above pollution limits set by Government and health authorities. These types of pollution episodes are more common in the winter months due to meteorological conditions.


Dr Ian Mudway presentation Watch a video about air pollution and health. Dr Ian Mudway at Cities for Clean Air : London 2012

The effects of air pollution on human health vary according to the type of pollution, exposure, and people's susceptibility though age, previous illness, and other factors. Babies, older people, and those with a medical condition: heart conditions or respiratory diseases for example, are particularly at risk. A reduction in the quality of life, and reduced life expectancy are attributed to air pollution. Traffic pollution imposes an increased risk for those living nearby. Almost everyone will be affected at some point in their lives.

The UK Government is advised by COMEAP (The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants) which is 'an expert Committee that provides advice to government departments and agencies, via the Department of Health's Chief Medical Officer, on all matters concerning the effects of air pollutants on health.'

COMEAP provides the following information (, January 2014):

'What is the effect of air pollution on death in the UK today?

Using 2008 figures, the burden of particulate air pollution from human activity (traffic, industry etc.) was estimated as a loss of 340,000 years of life in 2008. This loss of life is an effect equivalent to 29,000 deaths in 2008. The burden can also be represented as a loss of life expectancy from birth of 6 months (as an average across all births). [Our emphasis]

The key point is that although the effect of current levels of fine particles (monitored as PM2.5) on health can be calculated as equivalent to 29,000 deaths per year this is NOT to say that 29,000 people die each year solely as a result of exposure to fine particles. The reason for this is that fine particles contribute to, rather than cause entirely, the deaths of individuals.

The major effect of air pollution on deaths is from cardiovascular disease. It is likely that air pollution acts as a contributory factor - along with many others - in affecting mortality. COMEAP therefore speculates that the number of cardiovascular deaths in 2008 (approx 200,000) is more likely the maximum number of early deaths to which air pollution contributed a part. If this number were affected, the average loss of life due to air pollution would have been less than 2 years each among those affected, though the actual amount could vary between individuals.

Further information Public Health England, formerly the Health Protection Agency (HPA) publish air pollution and health information:

COMEAP further reading:

The World Health Organisation (Europe) also give guidence on air quality and health which is independent of any particular national Government:

Air pollution in the UK

Air pollutants and air quality in outdoor air ('ambient air') are controlled by laws including legislation from European Union directives. However, national Government and local authorities have not prioritised polices and enforcement for better air quality and clean air. When faced with difficult political choices, public concern about air pollution has been ignored even though there are air pollution laws to protect public health. Emission standards for new vehicles have been insufficient to maintain air quality. Furthermore, excessive vehicle use with an increasing proportion of vehicles with diesel engines, has worsened some forms of air pollution especially those directly linked to ill health. There is a growing awareness of the need for change.

Individuals and organisations have lodged complaints with the European Commission about the failure of the UK Government to maintain air quality set down in law. One organisation, has taken the UK Government to court for breaking the law but a remedy is yet to be forthcoming. Change is possible when there is public demand: the smogs of the 1950s were stopped when Government introducted of the Clean Air Act 1956. This created smoke control areas and it stop the burning of untreated coal in domestic fires. Today, effective polices and programmes are need for the new pollutents.

Types of pollution

Other air pollutants

All of the pollutants listed above have traffic pollution as a source. Carbon monoxide is another gas which is commonly associated with traffic polltuion but it is emitted in the home from faulty cooking and heating equipment. Other sources of air pollution from human activity include: domestic heating; power stations, waste incinerators, petro-chemical sites, manufacturing and extractive industries. Particular pollutants are associated with specific activisties e.g sulphur dioxide emissions are associated with power stations, steel works and petro-chemical sites. Dust is a common nusence from construction and waste sites. There are also air pollutants from natural sources such as pollen which may be present as particulate size particles; dust from soils; salt from oceans, etc.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are substances which are present as gases or which bind to particles. They can be highly toxic even in low conentrations. Metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and nickel can also occur as pollutants e.g mercury vapor or in particulates. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, 1,3-butadiene and formaldehyde which occur as gases, are also pollutants. License or permits are usually needed for their storage or discharge into the environment from industrial sites but they may also occur in products used by the public.

Climate change gases are those which act on our climate; some are more effective in climate change or 'forcing' than others. Carbon dioxide, methane and fluorinated hydrocarbons are climate change gases. Particulates - in particular black carbon, soot are also influential and present in aerosols.

National legislation and standards on air quality

Air quality is a devolved matter: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for their own air quality policy and legislation. The UK government ensures that nationally, policies meet international and European agreements. Relevant legislation to air quality (ambient air) includes: Part IV of The Environment Act 1995 ; Air Quality (Standards) Regulations 2010 which transposes into English law the requirements of Directives 2008/50/EC and 2004/107/EC on ambient air quality (equivalent regulations have been made by the devolved administrations; and Air Quality (England) Regulations 2000 sets national objectives for local authorities in England.

For further information see:

News about air quality and health

For the latest developments in science about air quality/ air pollution and health, read Health Effects of Air Quality and Noise - Update.

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