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Wednesday, 3 October 2023

Air pollution

Air pollution can be harmful to people, animals and the environment. Using less energy, learning greener driving habits or using different ways to get around can help reduce the air pollution you create.

What is air pollution?

The air contains substances that can be harmful to health and the environment. Air pollutants include ozone, oxides of nitrogen, ammonia, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter (bits of soot, dust or liquid, for example).

What causes air pollution?

Nowadays the main threat to clean air comes from car and road vehicle fumes. Cars and lorries burn petrol and diesel, giving off air pollutants like oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter. These can cause problems for people, wildlife and the environment. Power stations and some industrial processes also produce sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen among other pollutants.

Effects of air pollution on people

In the UK, air pollution lowers everyone’s life expectancy by about six months on average

Polluted air can cause problems for people who have lung diseases, heart conditions and asthma. Some pollutants are known to cause cancer. Children and older people are particularly at risk.

If your health is good, the normal levels of air pollution in the UK are unlikely to cause you any problems.

Particulate matter

When people breathe in polluted air, very fine particles can get into their lungs and cause breathing difficulties. Over time this can lead to heart and lung problems.

Ground-level ozone

Sunlight can cause some chemicals to react and form ozone near the ground – in some cases this can damage people’s eyes and throats. If you have asthma this can trigger your symptoms.

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide from older cars, cigarette smoke and faulty gas appliances affects the blood and is especially dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn babies.


Lead in petrol has been reduced but it is still released into the air by industry and coal power stations. If people are exposed to high levels of lead, organs in the body such as the kidneys, heart and brain can be damaged. Children are more sensitive to the effects of lead pollution than adults, and a child's intelligence may suffer.

What to do if you have health problems

If you know you have breathing problems or a heart condition, you can stay indoors when pollution levels are high. Always take your medication with you when you go out.

Effects of air pollution on plants and animals

Air pollution also affects plants and wildlife. This is why it can be more difficult for plants to thrive in city centres. Pollutants can also get into animals’ food and water.

Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides can make water and soil more acidic (and therefore harmful to some plants and animals). This can also reduce the amount of plants that provide food and shelter, causing serious problems for other wildlife.

Ozone can damage many types of plants, including farmed crops.

Is air pollution getting better or worse?

Air quality in the UK is now generally good, but there are still sometimes unacceptably high levels of pollution in some areas.

Cars and road vehicles pose the main threat to clean air, so it is important to cut down on the pollution they make. Tighter regulations and improved environmental technologies are continuing to reduce levels of air pollution in the UK and internationally. Reducing unnecessary car journeys and choosing greener vehicles can help reduce the harmful health and environmental impacts of air pollution.

What you can do about air pollution

There are many ways to prevent and reduce air pollution:

  • using less energy at home means that less coal, oil and gas are burnt, and less air pollution is given off
  • using public transport, cycling or walking more instead of driving will reduce traffic pollution
  • if you need to drive, there are techniques that help you use less fuel, like driving more slowly and smoothly
  • when buying paints, varnishes or glues, look for products that are water-based or have low solvent content

You can also report any pollution incidents you come across to your council or the Environment Agency. The link 'How to report pollution' explains how to do this.

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