Friday 21st October 2016                 Change text size:

What is causing the high levels of air pollution in the UK?

Luton Anderson via FLickr

A combination of strong winds and high levels of dust has forced the government and the Met Office to look at the increasingly poor air quality in the UK. Vulnerable citizens across England and Wales have been told to stay indoors, in order to avoid being exposed to the pollution.

Health warnings over the “high to very high” air pollution levels were issued on Tuesday and remained in place on Wednesday as well. Parts of southern England, the Midlands and East Anglia are the areas said to be the most affected.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggested that people with respiratory diseases and the elderly avoid outdoor activity until the pollution has faded – possibly from Friday onwards.

The department states, “Adults and children with lung problems, and adults with heart problems, should reduce strenuous physical exertion, particularly outdoors, and particularly if they experience symptoms.

“People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more often. Older people should also reduce physical exertion. Anyone experiencing discomfort such as sore eyes, cough or sore throat should consider reducing activity, particularly outdoors.”

Defra adds that the pollution alert is the result of local and European emissions, along with winds and a dust storm from the Sahara.

A spokesperson said, “We want to keep improving air quality and have introduced a new five-day forecast service in addition to investing heavily in local and transport initiatives to tackle this issue head-on.”

The worst levels of air quality were registered in north-west Norfolk on Tuesday, while East Anglia and the East Midlands are expecting very high levels of pollution, too.

According to the Met Office, the situation will get worse on Wednesday and the rest of the week.

Environmental campaigners have criticised the government’s inaction on the pollution problem. Friends of the Earth pollution campaigner Jenny Bates said, “Air quality in Britain is a national disgrace, with tens of thousands of people dying prematurely each year. Strong and urgent measures are needed to end this scandal, including action on road traffic, the cause of most pollution.”

Meanwhile, Maria Arnold from environmental law firm ClientEarth, which has taken the government to court over air quality in the past, argued that authorities are underestimating the problem.

In Paris, people have been offered free transport, but the government here has been very quiet as they don’t want to draw attention to this”, she said.

We think the [warning] format needs to become very similar to the warnings for floods and heat waves. It is really important people understand the risks.”

Despite Defra mostly blaming atmospheric conditions for the abnormal event, it has so far skirted along the elephant in the room. Low rainfall, winds and warmer temperatures are not the biggest problem in the long-term; the traffic fumes and emissions from industry are the real culprits.

The weather is simply reminding us of the pollution that we pump into the atmosphere ourselves. It is making us deal with a problem that instigate.

Air in many parts of the UK is been said by the European commission to have excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in it. The EU launched legal proceedings against the UK in February because the country had failed to tackle air pollution on time.

Staying indoors to avoid the pollution is equivalent to burying our heads in the sand. We don’t need masks or health advice; we need cleaner energy and cleaner air. If we fail, this pollution phenomenon will become much more frequent in the future at the expense of public health.

The Great Smog of 1952 brought about the Clean Air Act, but in the 52 years since, pollution is still a major problem. Urbanisation will only worsen the situation. It is high time the government learned from the past and thought about all our futures.

Photo:  Luton Anderson via flickr

Further reading:

Spring weather to bring high levels of air pollution to UK

Paris bans half of cars from its roads to tackle pollution

EU launches legal fight against UK air pollution levels

World Health Organisation: air pollution is carcinogenic to humans

‘Safe’ pollution levels can amplify lung cancer and heart failure risks

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