Air pollution and the campaign for clean air – what you need to know
Clean air - we all want to know our air is healthy. But too many of us breathe dirty air every day, especially in our towns and cities. Air pollution is a hidden killer and it hits children, older people and the poorest hardest.
This is where you can find the facts about air pollution: its causes, impacts, how to avoid it and how to help stop it. You can find out who is most affected by air pollution, investigate the air quality near you and even get in touch with other people working for cleaner air.
Air pollution facts and figures
The battle for clean air
The government vs the people
Court trials, toxic air and thousands of citizen science experiments: watch our 90 second roundup on air pollution, and what Friends of the Earth supporters have been doing about it.
N.B. In September 2018 the government's Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) revised the figure for annual premature deaths due to air pollution to 'up to 36,000'.
What are the effects of air pollution?
Air pollution costs lives and billions of pounds. It is one of the UK's biggest killers, causing up to 36,000 early deaths in the UK every year. That’s more than obesity or alcohol. Dirty air leads to worsening asthma symptoms, heart disease and even lung cancer. Air pollution has even been associated with changes in the brain linked to dementia and can lead to children growing up with smaller lungs.
The wider effects of air pollution include the burden on our health services and business. The costs of illness and days lost from work are estimated to add up to £20bn a year.
The benefits of cleaner air would be shared by everybody: reduced traffic congestion, more liveable cities and towns, and fewer days off sick.
Cleaning up our air will also help in the fight against climate change, the biggest environmental problem we face.
What causes air pollution?
The biggest problem for air pollution is road traffic, and diesel is the worst of all.
Road transport is the major source of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air we breathe. Even the most recent, Euro 6, diesel cars emit more than 5 times as much nitrogen oxides (NOx) as Euro 6 petrol cars.
Vehicles also produce tiny particles, known as particulate matter (PMs), that find their way deep into our lungs and some of them in to our bloodstream.
We must tackle air pollution at source – and this principally means getting the most polluting vehicles off the road and reducing road traffic.
That's why we need people everywhere to join us to phase out diesel fuel entirely by 2025.
What are the types of air pollution?
We’re most concerned about three types of air pollutant that cause environmental and health problems:
Particulate matter (PMs). The most dangerous tiny particles of air pollution worsen heart and lung disease.
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2). High levels of NO2 can cause a flare-up of asthma or symptoms such as coughing and difficulty breathing.
Ground level ozone (O3). Ground level ozone can irritates the eyes, nose and throat.
Where are the worst areas for air pollution?
Most areas of the UK are breaching EU legal limits for deadly nitrogen dioxide (NO2) - limits that should originally have been met in 2010. Forty towns and cities in the UK are breaking World Health Organisation guideline limits for fine particle pollution.
Even if pollution is within legal or WHO guideline limits, it doesn’t mean the air is safe.
The UK government has been instructed by the courts to significantly improve plans for cleaning up the country's NO2 pollution. A series of Clean Air Zones has been proposed, and more are likely to follow.
London has some of the dirtiest air in Europe. It is a major hotspot for NO2 – for the past 7 years London's air has been illegally breaching limits designed to be met in 2010. Under current plans a child in London might not breathe clean air until the year 2025 – in some other UK cities, 2020.
Across the country thousands of people have measured air pollution in their area with our Clean Air Kit.
Clean Air Everywhere: what a good air quality plan should look like
Our call for clean air everywhere outlines what must be included in the government’s air quality plans to end toxic air pollution for good:
- A plan to end illegal air pollution in 2018
- A diesel scrappage scheme to help people shift to clean vehicles
- Changes to road tax to deter diesel use
- A comprehensive network of plug-in points for electric vehicles by 2025
- Huge investment in public transport, walking and cycling routes
- A new Clean Air Act for the whole country to curb all types of air pollution