Explainer

Air Quality: Who does air pollution affect & how?

Poor air quality affects everyone. Gases and tiny particles in the air can be breathed in, affecting our lungs and other organs in our bodies.

But some of us are exposed to more air pollution than others. 

And it has a greater impact on the most vulnerable which include:

  • Babies and children 

  • People over 65

  • Pregnant women

  • People with heart, lung & breathing conditions

  • And communities living with poorer air quality (such as those by main roads)

The health effects can vary too. 

Short-term health effects:

  • Exacerbate asthma

  • Cause coughing, wheezing & shortness of breath

When there are episodes of high air pollution there is an increase in hospital admissions for breathing and heart conditions and an increase in mortality.

Long-terms health effects:

  • Strokes

  • Lung cancer

  • Respiratory conditions

  • Heart disease

  • And there’s also emerging evidence it can affect the brain too

Premature deaths

It’s estimated that air pollution over time can lead to more than 30,000 early deaths in the UK each year.

AND It’s the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK.

Outdoor air pollution

Outdoor air pollution is worse at different times of the day. And so if you are near busy roads at rush hour and you are in the vulnerable category, you are more at risk from air pollution. 

Outdoor pollution tends to be higher at the source - such as next to busy roads. But this isn’t always the case. Air pollution can travel. The pollutant “ground-level ozone” is often found in higher levels in the countryside. 

Studies show young children may be breathing up to 60% more polluted air than adults because they’re closer to vehicle exhausts.

The weather

The weather can be very helpful in dispersing pollution. So on a windy or wet day levels are likely to be lower in a location than if the weather was still. Still and stagnant conditions can cause a buildup of pollution - and in the worst cases a smog. 

But the weather can also carry pollution from one location to another - so we might see pollution from the continent heading our way in certain conditions (a clear example of this is Saharan landing on cars in the UK).

The weather is vital in forecasting air quality. Certain conditions may affect air quality and therefore the advice on how to stay safe, especially if you are vulnerable.

Indoor pollution

Causes include mould spores caused by damp, toxic fumes from gas cookers and fires, cleaning products and chemicals.

Poor air quality at home can trigger asthma, allergies, and heart conditions. Those of course who spend more time at home are more vulnerable - such as younger and older people. Others who are vulnerable include pregnant people and their unborn babies, people with heart and lung conditions and those living in poor quality housing.

Pollution forecast

It is easy to stay up to date with the latest Daily Air Quality Index

Air Quality Index Example Credit: ITV Weather - with data from DEFRA and Met Office

 It uses a colour coded scale of 1 to 10.

Low air pollution is between 1 and 3, Moderate between 4 and 6, High is between 7 and 9, and Very High is 10 on the scale 

Air pollution levels Credit: ITV Weather, DEFRA and Met Office
  • 1-3: Enjoy your usual outdoor activities

  • 4-6: At risk individuals consider reducing physical activity outdoors

  • 7-9: Anyone experiencing discomfort should reduce physical activity

  • 10: Everyone should avoid or reduce physical activity

You can find more information on air quality on the CleanAirHub