Air quality: How can we protect ourselves from air pollution?

  • Watch: How to protect yourself from air pollution

Exposure to air pollution is a big health issue, in fact, it is the biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK.

It can lead to a range of health problems particularly among the more vulnerable - but no one is immune.

Every year, there are thousands of premature deaths as result of air pollution. 

Dirty air causes between 26,000 and 38,000 early deaths a year in England, according to Government figures.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates in 2019, outdoor air pollution caused 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide.

Of these, 37% were due to ischaemic heart disease and stroke, while 18% were the result of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 23% from acute lower respiratory infections.

Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with 28,000-36,000 deaths a year attributed to long-term exposure.

In the short term, it can exacerbate asthma, wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.

If you particularly struggle with these issues, you can speak to your GP or asthma nurse about being given a reliever or rescue inhaler which can help with the issue.

In the long term, exposure to air pollution can lead to heart and lung conditions, cancer, strokes and there is growing evidence to show it can impact the brain.

So it is important to do what we can to limit our personal exposure to stay healthy.

The best thing we can do for everyone is to reduce the pollution in the first place – but there are several steps we can all make to lessen the impact on our individual health.

Where and how you travel

Air pollution levels change depending on location, time of day – and even the weather conditions.

When out and about try to avoid walking along busy roads, particularly at peak times.

Use quieter streets, parks and other open pedestrianised spaces – particularly if you are with children.

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

Higher levels or air pollution are generally found in towns and cities, where there’s more road traffic.

Imperial College found that: "In London, pollution concentrations within a few metres of busy roads are normally two or three times those at background locations, defined as normally at least 50-100m away from busy roads."

In a landmark ruling in 2020, a London coroner ruled air pollution was a cause of the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah.

The coroner said she had been exposed to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter exceeding WHO guidelines.

So if you can, find a route a few metres back from the main road to walk or cycle it’s much better for your health. And it’s healthier than going by car - as we are about to find out...

Inside the car

According to the Clean Air Hub: "Polluted air from the exhaust of the vehicles in front can get sucked into your car and often stays trapped there, meaning you might breathe in more of the pollution.

"Research has illustrated that people who commute by car have higher exposure to pollutants than people walking or cycling.

"As a consequence, scientists have estimated that commuters using motorised transport lose up to 1 year in life expectancy in comparison to cyclists."

Gases and particles in your home also pose a risk.

At home

It’s not just car fumes we need to be aware of. At home, we can also find gases and particles in the air.

When at home, open windows that don’t face roads to stop air pollutants from building up inside and use an extractor fan when cooking. If you are using gas, keep the room well-ventilated.

Try to avoid lighting open fires. If you have to make sure you use smokeless fuels.

If you are using wood make sure it’s dry and not painted or treated offcuts as these can give off lots of pollution.

Burning household waste is an offence. Burning garden waste isn't but it can give off lots of smoke and be bad for your health.

Burning household waste is an offence, but burning garden waste is not - but it can emit lots of smoke and be bad for your health.

Emissions of toxic air pollution from wood burning in UK homes have more than doubled in the past decade, according to official government statistics.

Wood burning in towns and cities is a big contributor to the harmful particles, which have been linked to a wide range of health problems, including heart and lung disease, dementia and mental illness in children.

Make sure your cooking and heating appliances, such as your boiler, are serviced regularly, and chimneys are swept.

Damp and mould can also be bad for our health and attract fungi.

Investigations by ITV News have revealed some of the horrendous conditions people are facing in rented homes.

You can get professional help to deal with dampness or inform your landlord if you are renting.

If you need further help The British Lung Foundation suggest the following: “Shelter and citizens advice both have advice on dealing with damp and mould in a rented home. You could also ask your GP for a letter to support further action.”

Cleaning and DIY products 

It’s best to use eco-friendly and fragrance-free products, and sparingly.

Use alternatives to aerosol cans and when using paints and chemicals for DIY look for products that are labelled low VOC as they are better for health and the environment.

Smog photograph captured over London. Credit: PA

Smoking, vaping, candles and incense sticks

Smoking is particularly dangerous in many ways but all of these can potentially exacerbate lung conditions and harm the health not only of you but those around you with the release of gases and tiny particles that enter our airways.

Perhaps less obvious are the problems with candles and incense sticks.

According to the British Lung Foundation: "Candles and incense sticks emit particles and other pollutants when they burn. Incense sticks emit more than 100 times the amount of fine particles as candles.

"There is also evidence linking incense burning to lung disease, so try and avoid using these regularly. Candles are much less of a health risk - but some fragranced candles may contain VOCs. Try using an extractor or opening windows while burning candles if possible."

For more information on indoor air pollution from the British Lung Foundation.

To protect yourself from poor air quality you can also 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.

Air Pollution Banding matrix. Credit: ITV Weather - with data from DEFRA and Met Office

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

Top tips for high pollution days

  • Limit outdoor activities and exercise so you avoid breathing in too much-polluted air.

  • Go out earlier in the day when air quality tends to be better.

  • Stay on quieter, back streets if possible, avoiding areas where there’s a lot of traffic.

  • Walk on the inside of the pavement because pollution levels are lower the further you are from the traffic.

  • Keep your car windows closed if you’re driving, especially if you’re driving in slow-moving traffic.

  • Be prepared by checking pollution levels in your area. Defra produces a UK-wide pollution forecast every day, and for the next five days, so you can check to see if your local area is likely to be affected.

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