Air pollution in our cities: what you need to know

Medical Director at Bupa UK
16 January 2017

When we think of air pollution, we tend to imagine places like China and Indonesia who have a very visible and long-standing problem with air pollution. However, it’s hit the headlines several times already this year that UK cities are exceeding guideline limits. While we don’t have the visible grey smog that obscures our buildings like other countries, air pollution is still a very real problem in the UK and across the globe.

A woman standing on a central reservation, surrounded by traffic

As an example, data on London shows that if levels carry on as they are, average life expectancy for some people could be reduced by up to two years.

We have tackled this in the past with the Clean Air Act in 1956. And, since 1996, levels of carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide have dropped by 80 percent in London. But now more action is needed to tackle the problem. Here’s our guide on what air pollution is, what the health effects are and what you can do to stay healthy.

What is air pollution?

Air pollution is when harmful gases, fumes, particles, chemicals and dust are added to the air. It’s produced as a result of motor vehicle exhausts, emissions from factories and industrial plants, and burning fossil fuels.

The main air pollutants in our major cities that are closely monitored are carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2).  

How does air pollution affect your health?

The worry is, air pollutants are linked to serious health problems such as:  

As well as the long-term health risks, short-term exposure on days when air pollution is very high may give you sore eyes, a dry throat and for some people, a tickly cough. Lots of people though won’t get any noticeable symptoms at all. If you already have a health condition, you might find your symptoms are worse on days like this. Children and older adults can be particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.

Though you may feel air pollution is beyond your control, the air pollution levels in the UK don’t generally reach high enough levels for you to need to drastically change your usual activities.

Top tips to minimise the effects of unhealthy air days

People can react to pollutants differently, so it’s important to take the right safety measures for you.

Check the air quality

Check the air quality so you know what to expect for the day ahead.

The UK uses an air quality index and banding system which is approved by the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants.

You can see a table about the index and what the health advice is both for those at risk and the general population on the London Air website.

Know where the highest levels are

Busy roads are often where pollution is highest, mainly because a lot of pollutants come from traffic vehicles.  Narrow streets that are surrounded by high buildings can also be bad spots. This is because the pollution in the air gets trapped in these pockets and the concentration levels build up.  Furthermore, the countryside and rural towns don’t escape problems either because a type of air pollution known as ground level ozone occurs mostly in these areas.

If you’re sensitive to the effects of air pollution, you could change your route so that you’re walking along the back roads rather than the busy areas.

When do the highest levels occur?

Still and hot weather can also mean pollutants in the air hang around. This applies to more rural areas as well as busy roads. In most places, the worst times of day are the rush hours and the afternoon. 

Exercise and whether to wear a mask

Exercise causes you to breathe harder, which means ingesting more pollutants from the air.

If you live in a city and cycle to work, you might have wondered about wearing a mask. Experts say there isn’t definite evidence that a mask will help. Certain designs of mask with special filters have been shown to protect against very small airborne particles. But it’s important that it fits correctly. Check there’s a good seal between your face and the mask so that particles don’t get through the gaps. It’s worth knowing that ordinary dust masks or scarves and bandanas won’t be effective against air pollution.

Masks are usually too big for children and particle matter can get in through the gaps between your child’s face and the mask. They won’t work very well on people with facial hair either.

Masks can make breathing more of an effort so chat to your doctor about wearing a mask if you have a health condition.

The current advice is that it’s probably better to adjust your route if you can to avoid the busier roads. 

If you’re a runner, you could try running in the early morning when pollution levels are most likely at their lowest.

Take your medicines

If you have a health condition that affects your heart and lungs, have your medicines close by. Make sure you take them as recommended by your doctor or patient information leaflet.

If you or your child has asthma, you may notice you need to take your inhaler more often on high level days. Keep your inhaler close by.

See your GP

Most of the time, you’ll be able to go about your daily life as usual. If, however, you don’t feel well or have symptoms, it’s important to contact your GP surgery for some advice. Don’t change your medication without getting medical advice.

Take it easy

On high level days, if you have a heart or lung condition, or are an older adult, don’t do too much physical activity.

Stop smoking

Poor health can be the result of more than one risk factor. Smoking is a major one. If you smoke and are exposed to air pollution, they will both contribute to your risk of lung cancer. If you smoke, seek help to quit.

Don’t worry unnecessarily

Children don’t need to stay inside or be kept home from school. If your child has asthma, make sure they have their medicine to hand and the school should already be aware of their condition.

The effects of air pollution are unpredictable and it’s not possible to say who will be affected and by how much. London Air advises the following three step process.

  1. Understand your risk – if you have a health condition that might be affected by air pollution, children and older adults are among those who may be most affected.
  2. If you know or think you’re at risk and are planning lots of exertion – it’s wise to check the pollution forecast first as it will help you make a choice about what to do.
  3. Use this table for advice about what to do.

What you can do to help

One of the major things you can do is change how you get around. Leave the car at home, take public transport, cycle, walk or scoot to minimise the amount of car fumes that are released into the air. Not only is it environmentally friendly, it’s cheaper and beneficial to your fitness levels too.

Steve Iley
Medical Director at Bupa UK

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