Should you be worried about air pollution?

Should you be worried about air pollution?

Many people think that air pollution is only a problem for big densely populated cities like Beijing or New Delhi but it’s also a problem right here in Northern Ireland and across the UK.

What is air pollution?

“The best definition of air pollution I’ve seen is that it’s any substance in the air that can impact human life, animal life and plant life.”- Dr Matthew Loxham, Air Pollution expert, University of Southampton.

There are different types of air pollution but it’s usually considered to be gases, dust, fumes or smoke.

Where does air pollution come from?

There are a number of sources and in Northern Ireland most of the pollution comes from road vehicles (cars, lorries, buses etc), our homes, (heating and energy), and farming.

How much of a problem is air pollution in northern Ireland?

The air quality in Northern Ireland is generally better now than it has been at any time since before the Industrial Revolution.-

It’s true, our air quality in Northern Ireland is pretty good. 

Data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that in comparison to the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland cities in general are much less polluted.  However, Derry/Londonderry is over the WHO limit (10 micrograms per cubic metre) with 11 micrograms per cubic metre – the same as London! Armagh only just met the limit with 10 micrograms per cubic metre – the same as Belfast and Birmingham.

Dirty air is one of the biggest environmental risks of early death. WHO estimate that air pollution kills 7 million people per year. That’s more than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria put together. 

Across the UK it’s thought that air pollution contributes to around 40,000 deaths per year. In Northern Ireland the figures are around 500 per year although those figures haven’t been updated since 2010.

Are there different types of air pollution?

Northern Ireland has 22 air quality monitoring stations that monitor different types of air pollution including: 

  • Nitrogen Dioxide
  • Particulate Matter (PM)
  • Ground Level Oxygen
  • Sulphur Dioxide
  • Carbon Monoxide

Each has different sources and impacts on our health and environment.  

Particulate matter (pm)

The type that causes the most damage are particles or particulate matter, often called PM. When we talk about particulate matter as a sort of air pollution, we mean things like smoke, soot, dust or dirt in the air. There are two types, PM10 and PM2.5.

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5), is the most harmful. It can get deep into our lungs and pass into our blood. It is mostly associated with road traffic and industry. So you would expect that it would be a huge problem for the UK’s bigger cities with large populations and lots of industry and traffic. However, data from WHO shows that some of Northern Ireland’s towns and cities have a problem too! It may surprise you to hear that Derry/Londonderry and Armagh have similar PM2.5 levels to London and Birmingham.

Health Impacts of PM

The health effects of particle air pollution have been widely studied, and include premature death and the worsening of heart and lung disease, often increasing admissions to hospital.

How do we know how much pollution is in our air?

The DAQI works a bit like a thermometer but instead of showing changes in the temperature, it shows changes in the amount of pollution in the air.

Each year the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development (DAERA) produces an annual Northern Ireland Environmental Statistics Report.  Air quality is also measured on the Daily Air Quality Index, or DAQI looked after by DAERA.

Air quality

How does pollution affect my health?

The effects of pollution may be felt more by people sensitive to air pollution (those with asthma, heart conditions or other breathing difficulties). But we are all affected by poor air quality even if we don’t experience any immediate problems.

Exposure to air pollution has short term symptoms and long term effects and impacts on our health.

Watch this video from the British Heart Foundation on air pollution and your heart!

What can we do to reduce air pollution?

The simplest way to reduce climate change and improve our air quality is not to create so much pollution. That is easy to say but harder to do.  

Most of us aren’t going out of our way to cause air pollution. We’re just travelling to work or school in cars, buses or trains. Or we’re working to earn our living – making things or delivering services. Perhaps we’re farmers rearing livestock or growing crops so people can eat or perhaps we’re just heating our homes and cooking our food.  In his book “Every Breath You Take”, Dr. Mark Broomfield (Atmosphere Chemist) explains that tackling air pollution can’t just be a simple matter of saying “create less pollution”. 

He proposes that instead of restricting what we do. It is better to find ways to do things more efficiently. For example, making it easier for people to travel by any other means than cars, (public transport, improved cycle lanes, bike storage etc), is an effective way to reduce greenhouse gases (impact on climate change) and air pollution.  As is creating more efficient heating systems and using more efficient electrical equipment or making changes to agricultural practices.

As individuals we often feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and the changes needed. The changes that will make the most difference need to made at government level.  But you can influence those decisions. Right now in Northern Ireland DAERA is asking all of us for our ideas for how we can improve our environment so they can build a new environment strategy that will address air quality along with other important environmental goals. 

What are government doing about air pollution right now?

Air quality strategy

The Air Quality Strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland sets out the UK Air Quality Standards and Objectives to measure the improvement of our air quality.

Local air quality management (laqm)

Councils in Northern Ireland review current air quality and assess whether any locations are likely to break any air quality limits and develop action plans to fix things. Information on Local Air Quality Management is available from the LAQM section of the DAERA Air Quality website.

Clean air strategy

The UK Department for Environment, Food and Affairs published the UK Clean Air Strategy in January 2019. It sets out plans to protect our health, our environment, reduce pollution and keep an eye on how we’re doing!

Section 9.5 of the Clean Air Strategy shows what DAERA are doing here in Northern Ireland. DAERA are also working on a Northern Ireland specific Clean Air Strategy.

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