UK: Air Pollution: Don't You Know That I'm Toxic?

Last Updated: 3 April 2017
Article by Giles Dean

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

This week the House of Commons launched a 'super inquiry' into the growing concern around air pollution in Britain. Four select committee panels will combine to examine the latest scientific evidence on how pollution in Britain is impacting health and the environment.1 This week's blog is by our colleague, Giles Dean, a senior consultant in the firm's risk advisory ractice; in it he discusses the impact that air pollution can have on our health and what is being done in the UK to tackle the problem.

Air Pollution

I moved to London just under three years ago having studied for a degree in Environmental Science in Sheffield. Almost immediately the contrast in air quality between the two cities was stark. It was not something I had paid a huge amount of attention to before, but now, living in London, it soon became clear that London had an air pollution problem.

Impact to health

Reports about toxic air pollution are increasing across the globe.2, 3 According to a recent UNICEF report, 300 million children around the world are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.4 The most visible impacts come from severe pollution episodes, and there is mounting evidence that suggests changes in particulate matter (contained in polluted air) cause increases in mortality rates.5

A recent report published by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health discusses the lifelong impact of air pollution on human health and well-being.6 It shows that long term exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution such as nitrous oxides (NOx), and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) - caused by a number of familiar objects from personal care products to combustion appliances – are linked to an increase in asthma, type 2 diabetes, brain development cardiovascular diseases, cancer, decline in lung function and changes linked to dementia.7

There is also evidence suggesting that climate change can increase the level of pollutants in the air we breathe and thereby increase mortality. For example, a report looking into the 2000 excess deaths caused by the UK's 2003 heatwave attributed between 21 and 38 per cent of these deaths to air pollution.8 A more recent study has suggested that anthropogenic climate change increased the risk of heat-related mortality in London by 20 per cent during the same heatwave.9 Indeed, with current climate models suggesting temperature anomalies such as the one on 2003 will become standard by 2040, the future risk to the population's health is something that needs to be taken very seriously.10

Why the focus on London?

Although there is general consensus that pollution levels in the UK have been falling for several decades, London is increasingly seen as having to deal with a pollution crisis, with annual limits (for certain areas) that are often breached over a few days or even weeks and with the Mayor having made tackling this a priority.11, 12 Indeed, the capital is often in the spotlight for exceeding legal limits and guidelines on pollutant levels (more specifically NOx), with the city's high density of vehicular traffic highlighted as a particular cause for concern.13 Specifically:

  • diesel vehicles emit close to 40 per cent of NOx and PM10 emissions in the capital
  • large diesel vehicles contributing 16 per cent of NOx emission in London's centre
  • petrol cars contribute 7 per cent of London's NOx emissions and 16 per cent of PM10 emissions.14

Moreover, the issue is much larger and extends to emissions produced by offices, factories and agricultural sites. However, the data underlying the impact of these on the capital are in short supply, largely due to the emphasis given to the contribution from vehicles on the city's pollution problem. However, in the wider UK, air pollution from agricultural sources more specifically that of ammonia, have increased by 1.7 per cent between 2014 and 2015.15

Looking Forward

Last year in the UK a cross-party committee of MPs referred to air pollution as a "public health emergency" and with the looming threat of climate change, called for urgent action to protect public health.16 A number of solutions to tackle the problem across the wider UK have been put forward, these include:

  • taking older diesel vehicles off the road by running scrappage schemes
  • enacting changes to excise duty rates to encourage low emissions vehicles or retro fitting HGVs
  • increasing the use of electric cars and creating a more beneficial environment for their use. There is evidence that this is already occurring, as by the end of 2016 over 35,000 electric vehicles had been registered in the UK
  • promoting the education around safe cycling and making UK cities a safe place for cyclists
  • providing more power to Local Authorities so that they can act when limits are breached, particularly if limits are breached near schools.17, 18, 19 

Meanwhile, more London specific solutions introduced in response to the Mayor of London's Air Quality Strategy include:

  • the creation of an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) by September 2020, which requires a wide range of vehicles to meet emissions standards or face daily charges when traveling in Central London
  • removal of the oldest and most polluting taxis, with new taxi licences issued after 2018 to be compliant with zero emission standards (i.e. vehicles must have a zero emission mode, such as electric power)
  • a continued commitment to retrofit older buses, provide more hybrid buses (3,100 more by 2019) and zero emission buses (300 more by 2020)
  • the Mayor's £20 million Air Quality fund that aids London's boroughs to improve their air quality through measures such as electrifying Hackney Council's fleet of vehicles.20, 21

It is incumbent on us all to stay as informed as possible about air quality, as without better education on the subject we may be unwittingly pushing an entire generation towards ill health in later life. Air pollution does not wait and neither should we, this problem is only likely to get worse so it is essential we all work together to act now.






5 Pope III, C.A. and Dockery, D.W., 2006. Health effects of fine particulate air pollution: lines that connect. Journal of the air & waste management association, 56(6), pp.709-742.


7 ibid















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