Air pollution is produced as a result of the way we live our lives. Generating power, heating our homes, producing food, manufacturing goods, road, rail and air transport all result in polluting emissions. Air pollution is currently the number one environmental risk to human health in the UK. Climate change is an emerging and potentially even greater future threat. In nearly every circumstance, tackling air pollution also helps with climate change and vice versa.
Being aware of how we live our lives means that we can all take steps to reduce the amount of pollution and climate changing gases we produce, and to make choices that reduce our personal exposure to pollutants.
The key air pollutants
Some key pollutants are detailed below. Particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen are monitored locally by Lancaster City Council.
Particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5 and PM1.0)
Particulate matter (PM) is comprised of extremely small particles, including particles less than 10 microns (PM10), fine particles less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5), and ultrafine particles less than 0.1 microns (PM0.1). PM can be composed of particles from many different sources and different chemical compositions. PM emissions commonly arise from the burning of materials and fuels, from industrial processes, tyres on road surfaces, and from agricultural activities. Due to its small size, fine and ultrafine particulate matter can penetrate deep into the lungs, enter the bloodstream and ultimately end up in most of the other organs in our bodies. There is no safe level of particulate matter exposure. The lower the level, the better.
One of the largest contributors to national PM2.5 emissions is UK householders burning wood, coal, and other solid fuels on open fires and stoves. Wood burning stoves are used by only 8% of the UK population, yet this contributes three times more particulate matter pollution than traffic! Find out how to improve your smoke emissions here.
We currently have one particulate matter monitoring station in Lancaster - the data can be accessed at ukairquality.net. There are plans in place to introduce more so we can better understand particulate impacts across the Lancaster district.
Oxides of nitrogen (NOx)
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitric oxide (NO) are gases most often produced by burning materials. Together they are referred to as oxides of nitrogen or NOx gases. Most emissions of NOx gases arise from the burning of fuels. Emissions from road transport are particularly important given the number of vehicles on our roads, but also because they usually release pollution to the air at a low level close to where people are breathing the same air.
Lancaster City Council currently monitor nitrogen dioxide levels at two automatic monitoring stations in Lancaster and at around 55 diffusion tube sites across the district. Data for these sites can be accessed at ukairquality.net and air quality monitors.
Most sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions come from the combustion of coal, mainly via power generation. SO2 is a respiratory irritant and can cause constriction of the airways but also contributes to acidification of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, damaging habitats and leading to biodiversity loss. Levels of SO2 pollution in the Lancaster district are considered to be relatively low and therefore the Council does not routinely monitor this pollutant.
None-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) and Ozone(O3)
None-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) react with other air pollutants to produce ground level ozone (O3). Ozone itself is a secondary air pollutant which causes airway irritation and respiratory symptoms. Industry is responsible for the majority of NMVOC emissions but chemicals, paints, and coatings inside the home can be a significant source in indoor NMVOCs.
The largest source of ammonia emissions is agriculture. Ammonia can cause damage to the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems through acidification and eutrophication, and also reacts in the atmosphere with other chemicals to produce secondary particulate matter and therefore contributes to particulate pollution (PM10 and PM2.5).
Air pollution and health
Air pollution is the top environmental risk to human health in the UK, with between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths per year attributed to long-term air pollution exposure. Some people are more susceptible to the health effects of air pollution, including those with pre-existing conditions, older people, young children, and pregnant women. Air pollution can exacerbate health problems in vulnerable groups, particularly those with respiratory conditions (e.g. asthma and COPD) and those suffering from cardiovascular disease. The best thing you can do to protect yourself from the health effects of air pollution is to reduce your own exposure.
Exposure to elevated levels of fine and ultrafine particulate matter (particles less than 2.5 microns) in the short term can exacerbate existing respiratory and cardiovascular health conditions. Research has shown that long term exposure can lead to chronic conditions such as asthma, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and even cognitive decline.
Indoor air quality
In the UK we spend up to 90% of our time indoors. Indoor air quality is therefore very important. Indoor air quality is most often affected by cooking, heating, cleaning, cleaning products, home improvements and DIY, smoking, and ventilation. Particulate matter pollution can arise from most of these types of sources. Chemicals found in carpets, upholstery, paint, cleaning products, fragrances, and personal care products can release non-methane volatile organic compounds and other substances which pollute the air inside our home. Where ventilation is lacking, pollutants can build up inside the home and so it is important so ensure our homes have adequate ventilation. This can be challenging, particularly during winter when we endeavour to keep ourselves warm and heating bills affordable.
Climate change and the environment
Air pollution has a direct impact on the natural environment, affecting our climate, reducing crop yield, polluting oceans and watercourses, and reducing biodiversity. Air pollutants and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide often have the same sources (fossil fuel burning, using petrol/diesel vehicles), and so actions that reduce air pollution (use of renewable energy, electric vehicles, walking, cycling) also have the positive impact of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Burning wood as a fuel is often identified as a good environmental choice. This is incorrect as burning wood releases significant air pollution and releases the carbon stored in the wood. Wood is better used as a building material or simply left as a tree where it retains or continues to gather carbon and does not result in significant air pollution.
What you can do
The following are some suggested actions which if adopted would significantly contribute to improving local air quality.
- Is the journey necessary? Internet technology available today allows communication and transactions to take place without the need for personal travel. Wherever possible the use of technology can remove or reduce polluting emissions and also save you time and money.
- Choose active travel. Where a journey is needed, choosing to walk or cycle means that you are not adding to pollution and has the added benefit of keeping you fit and healthy. Some good information and suggestions can be found here: Alternative ways to travel in Lancashire.
- School traffic. Traffic queues on are roads are regularly noticeable around school pick up and drop off times. Where possible avoid using a car to take your children to and from school and make safe and secure cycle, walking or public transport arrangements instead.
- Do not idle. Leaving your car engine idling while you are waiting as this further adds to the air pollution problem, wastes fuel, and can particularly impact on people who live in the vicinity.
- Low emission vehicles. If you need a car, consider using or purchasing a lower emission vehicle such as an electric car. If an electric car does not currently meet your specific needs or is not a possibility, if you can, choose a smaller, more fuel-efficient car. This will usually have significant emission benefits. Electric bikes (e-bikes) provide a new possibility for many. The council is hoping to expand its use of the Co-Wheels scheme to increasingly make electric cars available for use by the public: Co-Wheels Lancaster
- Use public transport. Please take the bus or train if this is an option. The council and its partners are working to improve the emissions from public transport. Information on public transport is available from: Traveline , Stagecoach buses and National Rail
In addition to reducing the pollution you create you can also do things to reduce your exposure to air pollution:
- Get out of your car. Sitting in traffic surrounded by vehicles exhausts can be the worst place to be. Not only will you be reducing pollution if you don’t drive, you will reduce how much pollution you breathe in.
- Choose where you walk. Air pollution along main roads with buildings close to the road can be particularly high. If possible, avoid walking along main roads, choose side roads. If you can’t avoid them walk as far away from the kerb as possible – pollution levels usually decrease quickly the further you get away from them.
- Choose where you exercise. Don’t run or cycle along busy roads if you can avoid them. Choose locations where traffic is lower or ideally, where there is no traffic at all.
- Get out of town! Not always an option, but if you can go out to places where the air is cleaner (the country or the coastal areas of Lancashire are great). But if you can, use public transport, walk or cycle so you don’t add to the problem.
- Avoid times when pollution is worst. If you can, don’t travel when traffic is busiest as this will usually be when the pollution is at its worst. This will not be a favourite for many, but walking in the rain reduces the pollution we breathe in!
- Wear a mask. You could wear a mask (as we have become all too familiar with recently), but if you do it needs to fit tightly, or its effect will be small. Also, if you don’t change it regularly and it becomes dirty it could even be worse for you.
- Open a window. Air pollution inside can be an issue as we often produce dust for activities such as DIY, cleaning, cooking and heating out homes. Ventilate your home and minimise dusty or smoky activities.
- Use clean fuel. Choose to heat your home using a ‘clean’ fuel such as electricity or gas.
- Do not smoke. If you smoke, the best thing you can do for your health is to stop. If you must smoke, make sure you smoke outdoors and remember to take ‘7 steps out’. This will reduce the amount of harmful tobacco smoke entering your home.
- Burn less or not at all. Pollution emissions from wood burning stoves are much higher than from gas or electric heating systems and the combined impact of a number of stoves in urban areas can lead to noticeably poorer air quality. Wood burning stoves and other solid fuel installations also significantly affect the air quality inside your home and therefore impacts on the health of you and your family. Garden bonfires can also similarly add to local pollution. It is therefore beneficial to your health if these more polluting choices can be avoided.
Last updated: 29 July 2022