The national Air Quality Strategy explains that air pollution harms health and the environment we live in, increasing rates of respiratory conditions, reducing life expectancy and having a detrimental impact on ecosystems and vegetation. It also states that more is being learned about some pollutants, which are more dangerous than previously thought which helps to set safer thresholds.
Despite causing death and disease, as there is no link between personal behaviour and personal consequence (like smoking or obesity), it falls on government to put in place tighter controls on emissions of pollutants from industry, transport and domestic sources. Local Authorities must monitor air quality and take the appropriate action if levels of air pollution breach the standards and objectives within the strategy. Local people can make better transport choices to help improve outdoor air quality and local authorities have a role in monitoring air quality and enabling people to use alternative means of transport.
Key inequalities and risk factors
Air pollution is harmful to everyone. However, it does affect some people more than others.
- Disability and long-term conditions - Defra guidance also advises that children, adults and older people with existing medical conditions such as cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, including asthma will also be vulnerable to poor air quality.
- Obesity - Some chemicals in air pollution may be implicated in the development of obesity. It may be a vicious circle, because we also know that obese people are more sensitive to air pollution.
- Age - Air pollution affects children more than adults because children tend to spend more time outdoors and because their lungs are still developing (Clean Air for London, 2016, accessed 12 July 2016)
- Maternity - Some pollutants, when breathed by the mother, can cross through the placenta to the developing baby leading to low birthweight and pre-term birth.
The Royal College of Physicians Every Breath We Take report (2016) concludes that people most vulnerable to poor air quality are those who:
- live in deprived areas, which often have higher levels of air pollution
- live, learn or work near busy roads
- are more vulnerable because of their age (specifically older people and young children)
Facts, figures and trends
Particulate matter (PM) describes the mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air emitted during the combustion of solid and liquid fuels such as for power generation, domestic heating and in vehicle engines.
PM varies in size (i.e. the diameter or width of the particle). PM2.5 means the mass per cubic metre of air of particles with a size (diameter) generally less than 2.5 micrometres (μm). PM2.5 is also known as fine particulate matter. (2.5 micrometres is one 400th of a millimetre). The smaller the particulate, the easier it is to be absorbed into the body.
Over time, air quality has been getting better. The chart below shows that the average number of days when levels of ozone (O3), particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) were moderate or higher at urban sites in the UK between 2010-2015:
The World Health Organisation states that air pollution is a major environmental risk to health. By reducing air pollution levels, countries can reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma. The lower the levels of air pollution, the better the cardiovascular and respiratory health of the population will be, both long- and short-term.
Pollutants with the greatest current impact on public health are considered to be particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5), ozone and nitrogen dioxide; with PM 2.5 having the strongest link to health outcomes over the life course according to the Royal College of Physicians. They state the most important chemical pollutants in our outdoor air are:
- particulates – small specks of matter such as soot, which can be natural but are primarily from traffic (especially diesel engines)
- nitrogen oxides – gases generated by vehicles, or by chemical reactions in the atmosphere
- ozone – this gas is formed when other pollutants react in the atmosphere, when it breaks down it creates other pollutants
In a summary assessment of health effects, The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) state elevated levels and/or long term exposure to air pollution can lead to more serious symptoms and conditions that mainly affect the respiratory and inflammatory systems, but can also lead to more serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer. People with lung or heart conditions may be more susceptible to the effects of air pollution and advice is available on the Defra website for vulnerable groups.
In 2016, Swedish research published in BMJ Open determined a negative link between brain and cognitive function in children and adolescents noting an increase in dispensed medication for at least one psychotic diagnosis as the concentration of traffic-related nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution increased.
The table below shows the types of health effects experienced by the most common pollutants at elevated levels:
Health effects at very high levels
Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide, Ozone
These gases irritate the airways of the lungs, increasing the symptoms of those suffering from lung diseases
Fine particles can be carried deep into the lungs where they can cause inflammation and a worsening of heart and lung diseases
This colourless, tasteless, odourless, non-irritating gas prevents the uptake of oxygen by the blood. This can lead to a significant reduction in the supply of oxygen to the heart, particularly in people suffering from heart disease
Effects on the environment
Air pollution also causes damage to plants and animals, affecting biodiversity and crop yields. DEFRA has a number of research projects investigating the effects of air pollution on vegetation and ecosystems.
Effects are worse in the autumn and winter as low temperatures combined with lower wind speeds reduce the dispersal of pollutants.
Air quality in Bracknell Forest
Air pollution is being measured in and around Bracknell Forest using diffusion tubes. This is a type of non-automatic monitoring where samples are exposed over a period of a month being collected and analysed.
There are two air pollution stations installed in the borough. They are automatic monitoring stations, which mean that measurements are made continuously. The data is sent through the telephone line to us at regular intervals. This is an ongoing process and we are required to produce an Annual Status Report (ASR) through this, the results of our air quality monitoring is reported to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
All council reports can be seen on the council website.
Poor air quality is a significant public health issue. The burden of particulate air pollution in the UK in 2008 was estimated to be equivalent to nearly 29,000 deaths at typical ages and an associated loss of population life of 340,000 life years lost.
A 2017 study in the Lancet found that particulate matter air pollution was the 5th highest mortality risk factor in 2015, causing 4.2 million deaths (7.6% of global deaths).
Estimated adult mortality attributable to fine particulate matter is recorded in the Public Health Outcomes Framework:
The data demonstrates that the fraction of attributable mortality due to PM 2.5 has declined since 2010 in Bracknell Forest. This is in line with the national picture.
The estimates are an indication of risk only and are based on a multi-variable, modelled calculation (detailed on the public health outcomes framework site) which makes comparability with smaller areas not possible.
When the national Air Quality Strategy was published in 2007, total air pollution was currently estimated to reduce the life expectancy of every person in the UK by an average of 7-8 months with estimated equivalent health costs of up to £20 billion each year. An updated assessment, based on 2008 data, shows that improvements in pollutant levels since 2005 mean that the average reduction in life expectancy improved to 6 months and the annual cost reduced to £15 billion. This is comparable to the growing annual health costs of obesity, estimated at £10 billion (although the basis of the cost calculation differs).
Air pollution due to man-made fine particulates causes an estimated 29,000 UK deaths each year, and costs the economy £15 billion (Moore and Newey, 2012). The 2015 economic analysis suggests estimates that for particulates alone, average life expectancy is reduced in the UK by around six months, worth £16 billion a year.
Defra states that removing all fine particulate air pollution would have a bigger impact on life expectancy in England and Wales than eliminating passive smoking or road traffic accidents. With the economic cost from the impacts of air pollution in the UK estimated at £9-19 billion every year, this is comparable to the economic cost of obesity (over £10 billion).
Prevention, Care, Support and Management
The council monitors air quality in the borough and have declared two air quality management areas (AQMAs) within the borough for nitrogen dioxide (an AQMA is an area where air pollution is above the national air quality standards):
- Bracknell Road B3348 and Crowthorne High Street, Crowthorne
- The Bagshot Road A322 Horse and Groom Roundabout, Downshire Way
An action plan to address the air pollution in these areas has been developed; this plan is based upon the Local transport Plan (LTP3).
People can make choices that help make the situation better.
A major cause of air pollution is particulates from vehicles, a situation made worse over time by a significant increase in car ownership, longer journeys by car and fewer journeys by public transport or on foot. (See the JSNA chapter on transport for more information on this.)
Planning Policy Guidance Note 13 (PPG 13) Transport which sets out guidance on reducing the need to travel, especially by private car, and promoting more sustainable transport choices for people and moving freight.
In response, the council’s website gives information on making better travel choices and the council has also published “Better Ways to School” which explores the travel and transport needs of children, and young people in the borough, and the infrastructure to support change towards fewer car journeys between home and school.
Bracknell town centre and local bus stops have an ‘intelligent transport system’ that gives up to date information on bus arrival, departure and transit times to make it easier for people to make informed public transport choices and therefore reduce traffic emissions.
Planning Policy 23 (PPS23) which covers systems for pollution control, air quality, water quality and development on land affected by contamination
The National Heatwave Response plan is published by Public Health England. Air quality smogs typically accompany heatwaves. In these circumstances, pollutants are less well spread and dispersed in the air or are added to a higher background concentration which can lead to high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. Heatwave conditions often lead to increased ozone levels following interactions of other pollutants with sunlight. Information on the latest pollution levels and the air quality forecast can be found on the UK-Air website (Defra)
Advice to those with respiratory problems is consistent with the advice to all others during a heatwave – to keep windows shaded and closed when outside temperatures are hotter during the daytime to reduce heat (and ozone) entering the home; and opening windows at night or when it is cooler outside, to aid cooling of their home.
Want to know more?
Air Pollution in the UK (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, annual) – annual report, together with the family of UK Air Quality websites (UK-AIR, Air Quality in Scotland, the Welsh Air Quality Forum website and Air Quality in Northern Ireland) provides the most comprehensive and complete analytical picture of UK's air pollution on an annual basis.
Air Quality Strategy (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2007) - sets out air quality objectives and policy options to further improve air quality in the UK to 2050. As well as direct benefits to public health, these options are intended to provide important benefits to quality of life and help to protect our environment.
Air Quality: Public Health Impacts and Local Actions (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2007) – sets out the impact of air quality on public health, and the role of local authorities in monitoring and managing air quality and steps councils could do to improve air quality through energy efficiently, transport and infrastructure planning.
Physical activity: walking and cycling (NICE, 2012) - guidance is for commissioners, managers and practitioners involved in physical activity promotion or who work in the environment, parks and leisure or transport planning sectors. It sets out how people can be encouraged to increase the amount they walk or cycle for travel or recreation purposes. This will help meet public health and other goals (for instance, to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions).
This page was created on 27 February 2014 and updated on 20 July 2017. Next review date: July 2018
Cite this page:
Bracknell Forest Council. (2017). JSNA – Air Quality. Available at: jsna.bracknell-forest.gov.uk/people-places/wider-determinants-health/environment/air-quality (Accessed: dd Mmmm yyyy)
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