The biggest threats to the UK’s public health are cancer, obesity and heart disease, but air pollution, specifically particulate matter (PM), isn’t far behind. In January 2019, a Clean Air Strategy was announced that aims to reduce the costs associated with air pollution by £17 billion ($2.1 billion) by 2020. It is the first air quality strategy based on World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines by a major economy.
What is Particulate Matter?
Particulate matter is a term for the solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Not all polluting particles can be seen by the naked eye, unlike dust, smoke, or soot. Particulate matter includes PM10, which covers particles of diameters less than 10 micrometers and smaller that can be inhaled. Particulate matter also includes PM2.5, which also covers inhalable particles, but those with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller. Particulate matter can be made up of a huge number of chemicals, and most of them form as a result of reactions between pollutants.
How Does Particulate Matter Affect Health?
The World Health Organization has identified particulate matter to be the most harmful pollutant to the public, and more specifically, PM2.5 is thought to pose the greatest risk to public health. Although microscopic, the health problems inhaled PM can cause are very serious, as they are able to enter the lungs and the cardiovascular system. Links have been made between PM exposure and the following health issues by scientific studies:
- Premature death in heart or lung disease patients
- Nonfatal heart attacks
- Irregular heartbeats
- Aggravated asthma
- Impaired pulmonary function
- Respiratory problems including coughing, difficulty breathing, or airway irritation.
The UK’s Clean Air Strategy 2018
Responses to the draft strategy for 2018 were positive in regards to its goal of halving the population that is exposed to PM2.5 over the World Health Organization’s guidelines of 10μgm3, however there were calls for more widespread communication on pollution levels and its associated risks through GP surgeries, on weather forecasts and in schools. The 2018 Clean Air Strategy also aims to halve the number of people living in locations that violate particulate matter guidelines set out by the WHO by 2025. Cleaner modes of transport were also an issue raised in the strategy.
Funds and the levels of power afforded to local authorities were seen as a barrier against implementing all of these positive steps. However, increasing scientific research and understanding of air pollution was seen as an effective opportunity to advance the UK’s grasp on its pollution problem.
The UK’s Clean Air Strategy 2019
Many of the same goals remained in the 2019 Clean Air Strategy, with a focus on partnerships between industries and organizations.
To help the public on a local or individual level, personal air quality reports were proposed in the 2019 strategy, enabling members of the public that are vulnerable to the harmful effects of air pollution to be better informed about pollution levels in their area and associated health advice. Partnerships with the media to provide air quality forecasts were also suggested. It also pledged to train health professionals so that they are able to better advise local authorities and public health directors about how to improve air quality.
Reducing Pollution from Transport
The UK already plans to invest over £2 billion in cleaner transport and improving the quality of air, and a partnership with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will see £19.6 million go into promoting development of clean technology.
There have also been significant moves towards reducing the amount of nitrogen oxides (NOx) polluting air in the UK. The total UK NOx emissions fell by approximately 70% between 1970 and 2015, and over 19% between 2010 and 2015. In 2016, the UK had the second highest number of sales of battery electrical vehicles and hybrids in the EU.
As the UK has failed to meet guidelines around NO2 pollution on the roads, concerted efforts are being put into this area. In 2011, the UK made plans to stop the sale of conventional cars and vans by 2040, and to only have zero-emission cars on the road by 2050. Also by 2040, the rail industry will put forward recommendations and route maps to move towards phasing out trains running on diesel.
£60 million is to be put towards new, clean buses and plug-in taxis, as well as £1 billion going into charging infrastructure across the UK, with the hope that the UK will become a leader in adopting clean technology on road networks and making electric vehicles a simple alternative to conventionally fuelled vehicles. Investment is also going into research and development that will advance the development of new technologies and upgrade infrastructures across the country.
Which Others Areas are Responsible for High Pollution Levels?
Transport, while responsible for being a substantial source of air pollution, was not the only area identified as having an extensive, detrimental effect on pollution levels and public health.
38% of the UK’s particulate matter emissions actually come from domestic burning, including that of stoves and open fires. Legislation that will ban sales of polluting fuels will be brought into place, as well as implementing systems that will upgrade inefficient and polluting heating systems and ensure that only clean stoves are sold by 2022. Oil and coal heating will be phased out over time, and, outside of the domestic sphere, power stations run on coal will also be phased out.
Pollution can also come from chemicals in paint, carpets, upholstery, and cleaning and fragrance products in the form of non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs). The 2019 Clean Air Strategy puts forward that consumer industries and health organizations should work together with the government to raise awareness of this type of pollution and how to properly ventilate homes to reduce the public’s exposure. Labelling products that contain NMVOCs was also suggested.
Agriculture’s contribution to air pollution is seen in its responsibility for 88% of ammonia emissions, which comes from manure storage and spreading, and the use of fertilizers. Ammonia pollution has detrimental effects on natural habitats as well as contributing to PM pollution in urban areas as well. To tackle ammonia pollution, support will be given to farmers to allow them to reduce emissions through equipment and infrastructure and reduce pollution from the use of fertilizer. Ammonia emissions will also be regulated by the use of low-emission farming techniques.
The 2019 Clean Air Strategy proposes a wide range of tactics to reduce the UK’s air pollution levels, from funding research and development, banning polluting fuels and associated appliances, and investing heavily in clean, electric modes of transport and charging infrastructures. Partnerships between local authorities, health organizations and industries were highlighted as beneficial in the move towards a cleaner, greener UK. Pollution levels have been seen to decrease in many areas of the UK over recent years, although many towns and cities still remain at the limit or in breach of World Health Organization air pollution guildelines.