Air pollution – what we need to know

Clare Nasir

Clare Nasir, meteorologist, author and broadcaster, explains what we all need to know about air pollution

When I first joined the campaign for healthy air back in 2012 there was still confusion surrounding the issue of air pollution.

Since then great strides have been made to clean our air. Low emission zones, bike and bus lanes, the rise of the electric and hybrid vehicle. Yet still we are blighted by polluted air and it has a huge impact on our health.

Air pollution is one of the leading threats to child health, accounting for almost one in 10 deaths in children under five years old1. And the World Health Organization estimates the premature global death rate for outdoor air pollution to be 4.2 million people a year2

My personal experience

Many of us noticed how the air was cleaner during the first national lockdown. In fact, according to E.ON’s recent research3 62% of Brits miss how clear the air was during that time.

The eerie quiet on Britain’s roads was almost tangible and according to Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs), nitrogen dioxide levels dropped by 60% in some areas compared to the same time in 20194.

For me, this brought back a memory a few years earlier when my family relocated from inner city London to the outskirts of a small town in Cheshire. For years we had lived a stone’s throw away from the congested A1 in London’s Zone 1, but the constant hum of traffic and subsequent fumes hadn’t really bothered me. The smog was hardly visible, even on the hottest days of the summer.

This all changed when I brought my premature baby home after spending the first six weeks of her life in hospital wired up to a machine to help her breathe. It was then I became acutely aware of any health risks that may affect her – inside and outside the house.

The more I read about the risks of air pollution, the more I realised the responsibility I had to my small child and her long-term health. However, in a city like London it was almost impossible not to be exposed.

It wasn’t until we moved out of the city to a place where the air was generally fresher that we noticed, within a few weeks, a noticeable improvement in her breathing. That ragged cough had gone – a cough that occasionally pushed her body to a point of choking. Since then I have a recurring thought as I remember those early, worrying times; not everyone has the choice to relocate. City life is a necessity for millions, yet this is where the greatest exposure to air pollution remains.

So to help raise further awareness about air pollution I’ve pulled together a series of facts and tips to bring you up to speed on how to help counteract the negative side effects of air pollution.

How to check air pollution levels

The air pollution forecast uses the Defra Daily Air Quality Index5, which tells you about the levels of air pollution in your local area and is a good indicator of how clean the air is. Through its ‘Change the Weather’ service, E.ON is now making this information more readily available to national and regional media, and on its own website, enabling this information to become even more visible so you know what the levels are like before you step outside.

E.ON’s ‘Change the Weather’ service is a great opportunity to allow us put air pollution on the map because don’t we all have the right to take a stroll down our local high street safe in the knowledge it won’t take years off our lives?

How you can spot if air pollution is potentially bad

Air pollution can vary depending on the weather. Air pollution builds on days when the wind is light, but when the wind picks up it can help to clear the air. In winter, high pressure means settled weather and is associated with cold and sometimes damp or foggy conditions - and it is this still, calm air that allows pollutants to readily gather and become trapped close to the surface level. The zone where we live and breathe. In summer, on hot days when the air is still and stifling, smog thickens. If you have a pollen allergy, the combination of high pollen and air pollution can exacerbate breathing conditions further.

 

Signs in the sky that air pollution may be high. If smoke from chimneys billows sideways, not upwards, this indicates that the lower atmosphere is trapping the air, or in other words, is forming a lid that doesn’t allow the dirty air to escape into the upper atmosphere. And if the air looks hazy, this could be a sign that smog has formed which can be detrimental to our health. 

 

What can people do to reduce their air pollution impact?

Go local. A great way to cut down on car journeys is to start travelling to shops in your local area by walking or cycling. It's cheaper than driving or parking and not only does it improve local air quality, it’s also great for your mood and physical health.

 

Conserve energy - at home, at work, everywhere. Turn off lights and use energy efficient electric appliances. Generating electricity with fossil fuels is a major source of pollution that can travel long distances from the source and manifest as air pollution, so switch off unless you really need it. You can also choose 100% renewable electricity like E.ON provides to its customers’ homes as standard6, and even consider solar panels for a more sustainable energy option.

 

Avoid burning. Burning solid fuels, such as open fires and wood-burning stoves has increased over the last decade. It can have a significant impact on air pollution. Avoid burning leaves and rubbish in your garden too.

How to limit your exposure to air pollution

Avoid roads surrounded by high buildings. The concentration of pollutants tends to be higher where they are trapped between buildings - even with a breeze air pollution is simply redistributed along the route.

Avoid exposure during peak traffic times. Congestion can triple during rush hour and with more vehicles on the road, the concentration of pollutants can also increase. To help reduce your exposure to these pollutants, try to stay away from roads during this time or wear a filtered mask when walking alongside traffic.

 

For more information, visit eonenergy.com/clean-air

1. World Health Organization: Air pollution and child health: prescribing clean air

2. World Health Organization: Air pollution

3. Research conducted by Census wide on behalf of E.ON October 2020 with a survey of 4063 respondents.

4. DEFRA: Estimation of changes in air pollution emissions, concentrations and exposure during the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK. Rapid evidence review – June 2020.

5. The DEFRA Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI) tells you about levels of air pollution and provides recommended actions and health advice. For more information, go to http://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/

6. Electricity backed by 100% renewable sources. E.ON's renewable generation assets, agreements with UK wind generators and the purchase of renewable electricity certificates. The electricity supplied to your home comes from the National Grid and DNOs. eonenergy.com/renewable