Climate change, smog, acid rain and ozone depletion are all created by air pollution, and pose a serious threat to the environment and our health. In the UK, air pollution is responsible for around 32,000 deaths every year, with thousands more requiring hospital treatment. Direct causes of death include asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and other respiratory diseases, but there are a host of other health problems linked to air pollution such as allergies, headaches, ear and nose infections, and immune depressive disorders.
Where Does Air Pollution Come From?
The main air pollutants are carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), ozone, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, benzene, lead, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter. Many of these are emitted from the burning of carbon-based materials like wood and fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), but they also derive from a vast range of industrial and chemical processes from industries such as manufacturing and construction, paper production, dry cleaning, printing, waste incineration, military operations, and agriculture. Motorised vehicle emissions are a major source of air pollution.
Indoor Air Pollution
It is easy to think of pollution as an outdoor problem, but it can be even more problematic indoors. Because of poor ventilation, indoor air pollution is up to 60% more concentrated in buildings and homes, and can be a significant risk to human health. Conventional building materials and furnishings emit formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals; paints, solvents and household cleaning products emit volatile organic compounds and other fumes; and stoves and fireplaces emit carbon monoxide and smoke particulates. Buildings also contain biological pollutants such as dust mites and moulds.
Air Quality Management
The UK Government has been committed to reducing air pollution ever since the Great Smog in London of 1952, which lasted 4 days and killed 12,000 people. The Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 restricted the use of coal fuels, and introduced a tall chimney policy for industry to discharge pollution higher up into the atmosphere, away from urban areas.
The 1995 Environmental Act led to the development of the UK Air Quality Strategy, which sets air quality standards and targets for 8 main pollutants, and provides the framework for local government, industry and business to ensure its objectives are met. Local authorities are responsible for implementing this Strategy through Local Air Quality Management systems that regulate identified air pollutants in their local areas.
What You Can Do to Improve Air Quality
While the UK Government is working to reduce air pollution on a national scale, we can all play a part in keeping air clean by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. We might have little influence on how our energy is produced, but we can all reduce our energy consumption, which in turn will reduce emissions that lead to air pollution.
By choosing to use eco-friendly building materials and non-toxic paints; installing energy efficient appliances and devices in our homes; using renewable technologies; eating organic, locally grown foods; and recycling and reusing products, we can each have a positive impact on air quality.
Since vehicle emissions are a major source of pollution, we can also help by adopting clean fuel technologies such as electric, hybrid or biofuel cars, and also by walking, cycling, car sharing and using public transport.
Air pollution is a major global issue, with huge impacts on our health, our communities and the wider environment. It is imperative that we address these concerns, before it is too late. Each of us can take action on this, and remember, no matter how small these steps may seem, it all adds up to cleaner air.