Air pollution is an environmental and health issue whose impacts stretch across the entire globe. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that toxic air is the cause of around seven million premature deaths worldwide each year, with 90% of the world’s inhabitants breathing dangerously polluted air every day.
A vital tool in improving air quality at scale is better awareness of the topic, so we’ve created this guide to cover the key points surrounding air pollution, including sources, health implications, and how we can tackle the issue.
The guide can be read in full, or you can skip to the sections that are most important to you. If you have any questions about air pollution, or want to certify the quality of air in your indoor space, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team.
- Key air pollutants
- Sources of air pollution
- Health implications of air pollution
- Health inequalities: who is worst affected by toxic air?
- What can we do?
Key air pollutants
Many particles and gases, both natural and man-made, contribute to air pollution. Exposure to different pollutants vary in terms of severity of health and environmental effects, but it’s widely acknowledged that long-term exposure to any of the key air pollutants can cause significant health implications, and sometimes even be fatal. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently published updated air quality guidelines relating to the key air pollutants, which governments can work towards to improve the quality of our air.
The term particulate matter (PM) describes solid or liquid particles that vary in size, shape and composition. These particles can be emitted directly (primary PM), or through chemical reactions in the atmosphere (secondary PM).
Sources of PM can be natural – wind-blown dust, sandstorms and sea salt spray – and man-made – burning fuels and mechanical processes.
Different types of PM are most often grouped in accordance with their size:
- PM10 refers to coarse particles that are less than 10 microns (µm) in diameter (these particles come from sea spray, bacteria, dust, smoke, airborne viral particles)
- PM2.5 refers to fine particles that measure less than 2.5 µm in diameter (these particles can come from vehicle exhausts, wildfires, power plant emissions, burning candles)
- PM0.1 refers to ultrafine particles that are less than 0.1 µm in diameter (these particles come from similar sources to PM2.5, and less is know about this type of particulate matter compared with coarse or fine particles)
PM2.5 hugely impacts the quality of air indoors as it often comes from daily household activities, such as heating and cooking.
The different sized particles can cause a range of harmful health effects, with the majority of research exploring the negative impacts of PM2.5. These fine particles can easily penetrate into the lungs and bloodstream, causing irritation of both upper and lower airways, as well as cardiovascular issues: this can even reduce life expectancy. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has set a guideline of 10μg/m3, there is said to be no safe level of PM2.5.
However, long term exposure to all types of PM is harmful to our health, being classed as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a highly reactive gas that is produced alongside nitric oxide (NO): together they are known as nitrogen oxides or oxides of nitrogen (NOx).
NO2 is caused by combustion, primarily the combustion of fuels. The main source of these emissions comes from road vehicles, but other significant sources include power plants, industrial processes, and central heating.
Ingesting air with high concentrations of NO2 irritates the respiratory system, aggravating existing conditions such as asthma, and causing shortness of breath and coughing. Studies have shown that longer term exposure can impact lung development in children, and proper lung function in adults – even potentially reducing life expectancy.
NO2 also causes harmful environmental effects; when it interacts with water, oxygen, and other naturally occurring chemicals it can form acid rain, which severely damages delicate ecosystems.
Ozone (O3) is a gas found in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and at ground level. Stratospheric ozone, a naturally occurring gas in the upper atmosphere, is non-harmful and protects us from ultraviolet rays.
At ground level, tropospheric ozone is created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and VOCs: this type of ozone is a harmful pollutant.
Ground-level ozone can have adverse respiratory effects, and some studies show links to cardiovascular issues as well. It also causes environmental harm and can significantly damage the growth of plants and vegetation.
Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is a colorless gas with a strong smell, which is produced when fuels containing sulphur, such as coal and oil, are burned. Sources of this include vehicle use, heating, and cement manufacturing; it also causes secondary air pollution by contributing to the formation of ozone, and producing sulphates through chemical reactions, which contribute to PM.
The negative effects of SO2 can be felt quickly, causing irritation of the nose, throat and lungs. This can cause coughing and chest tightness which leads to the narrowing of airways and a reduced flow of air to the lungs. It can increase susceptibility to chest infections, and the negative impacts are felt more strongly by those with asthma.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an invisible, odorless and tasteless gas. It is produced when fuels like gas, oil and coal burn without sufficient oxygen: main sources are vehicle emissions, industrial activities and cigarette smoke. There are also some natural sources of CO, such as volcanoes and wildfires.
Many household appliances, such as boilers, central heating systems, and cookers use fuel that – when faulty – can leak CO into the home.
CO is poisonous to humans, but children and unborn babies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of exposure. High levels of CO can be fatal, while lower levels can still cause noticeable harm to health. Symptoms of exposure include headaches, dizziness, vomiting, confusion, and shortness of breath – among others.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a naturally occurring, colorless, odorless gas that makes up 0.04% (400ppm) of the air we breathe. Human and animal respiration and combustion are the main sources of indoor CO2, which means concentrations are significantly higher indoors than outdoors.
Studies have shown that elevated levels of CO2 can significantly impair cognitive function and cause up to 12% reduction in productivity. And even though it’s naturally part of the air we breathe, even very slightly elevated levels of CO2 have been shown to cause adverse health effects, such as aggravating respiratory problems. There is also a recognized connection between elevated indoor CO2 levels and increases in Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) symptoms.
Read more about the detrimental effects of CO2 here.
Volatile organic compounds
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are compounds that can become gases or vapours: total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs) is the collective term referring to a group of common VOCs. Examples in daily life include acetone (often used in stripping substances such as nail polish and paint removers), benzene and formaldehyde.
VOCs comprise a wide range of chemicals, which may be emitted over periods of weeks or even years from construction and furnishing products such as sealants, paints, cleaning products, and air-cooling refrigerants for building services.
Short-term exposure to high levels of VOCs can cause adverse health effects such as headaches, dizziness and visual disorders, as well as irritating the eyes and airways and causing memory impairment. Long-term they can be even more dangerous, potentially causing damage to the central nervous system and even cancer. There is also an association between higher concentrations of VOCs in indoor air with allergies, asthma, and poor respiratory health.
Radon is a naturally occurring, radioactive gas that is invisible, odorless and tasteless; it forms naturally as uranium in soil and rocks break down, as radon decays and produces radioactive byproducts it becomes harmful to our health. Once formed, it can enter buildings through cracks in walls, doors and windows.
Low-level exposure to radon is unavoidable, but outdoor levels are generally too low to cause any damage. Indoors, however, concentrations can accumulate to dangerous levels and can cause lung cancer. Long-term radon exposure is extremely harmful, as it’s the second highest cause of lung cancer, after smoking. Smokers are at significantly higher risk of health impacts caused by radon than non-smokers.
Lead (Pb) is a naturally occurring element which can be found in the earth’s crust. While it has some industrial uses, it has been acknowledged as a dangerous substance for decades, and can cause extreme damage to our health.
Key sources of lead in the air include ore and metal processing, lead-acid battery production, and piston-engine aircraft fuel. It was also commonly found in petrol for road vehicles, until it was widely banned two decades ago, with the ban coming into effect in the UK in the year 2000. Some countries, however, were slower to adopt the ban, with Algeria being the last country to ban this type of fuel only this year, in August 2021.
Once inhaled, lead can negatively impact the nervous system, impair kidney function, damage reproductive organs, and stunt brain development. Lead in the air can also be deposited into soil, stunting growth and reproduction of both animals and plants.
Sources of air pollution
Air pollutants are generated by a number of human and natural sources. Some of these sources, such as road traffic, are evident in everyday life, whereas others, like waste disposal, are often given far less attention as they can be ignored more easily.
Once pollutants are created, they can create smog and have significant health and environmental implications. These pollutants can also travel hundreds of miles and become trapped in areas completely removed from their original source. Read on for ten of the biggest contributors of air pollution, including tobacco smoke, waste disposal, and burning fossil fuels.
Burning fossil fuels
Burning of fossil fuels – coal, crude oil, and natural gas – is one of the key contributors to air pollution across the globe: in fact, they begin polluting our air long before they’re even burned. While mining for these fuels, miners are exposed to high levels of particulate matter.
Additionally, transporting and processing these fuels produces harmful pollutants such as formaldehyde and benzene, both of which are directly linked to the development of cancer.
When burned to produce energy for electricity and transportation, fossil fuels emit a number of air pollutants: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. According to a study by UCL and Harvard University, one in five deaths worldwide can be attributed to the burning of fossil fuels. On top of the implications for our health, the huge amount of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes hugely to the climate crisis.
Agricultural activities, such as animal farming and crop production, are large contributors to poor air quality. The use of pesticides and fertilizers to grow mass-produced crops emit pollutants, such as ammonia and nitrous oxide, into the surrounding air.
The larger issue, however, is the pollution caused by animal agriculture. The livestock production process (the raw materials, fossil fuels, and deforestation involved) is estimated to be responsible for anywhere between 14.5% and 51% of overall greenhouse gas emissions (estimations from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Worldwatch Institute, respectively).
Animal waste is also a huge air polluter, emitting harmful gases such as nitrous oxide, ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide and particulate matter into the atmosphere. The concentration of these gases – particularly in non-organic farming – can be extremely dangerous to workers and surrounding residents. The pollution is incredibly wide-reaching though, making it a global concern for both human and environmental health.
Industrial activities, those carried out by factories, release huge quantities of dangerous pollutants into the air. These factories often burn coal and wood to produce energy, as well as using toxic solvents and chemicals throughout the production process. This leads to nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, PM2.5 and PM10 being released into the atmosphere.
Transportation is one of the main sources of air pollution globally, contributing to over half of all nitrous oxide emissions globally. Traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) is one of the main offenders in this category, particularly in urban areas. The increasing demand for travel means more private cars and public transport on the roads than ever, with daily road expansions making way for even more vehicles. Road-traffic vehicles produce carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter – all of which are incredibly harmful to human health and are enormous contributors to the climate crisis. The majority of these emissions come from fuel combustion, factors such as fuel evaporation, tyre and brake wear, and road abrasion also further reduce the quality of surrounding air.
Another major source of air pollution is emissions from aircrafts. The aviation industry as a whole is hugely polluting, especially when we consider the emissions generated at ground level by traffic surrounding airports, causing extremely high levels of nitrogen dioxide. If the aviation sector were a country, it would be the sixth largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, generating carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and particulate matter.
Improper disposal of waste can be a significant source of air pollution, as dangerous chemicals are released into the surrounding air. Burning the waste of four of the biggest contributors to plastic pollution – Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and Nestlé – generates a staggering 4.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.
Burning waste produces harmful air pollutants and greenhouse gases that damage both our health and the environment. On top of this, the waste is predominantly burnt in developing nations, meaning the world’s poorest inhabitants are bearing the brunt of richer countries’ excess.
The construction industry
Construction and demolition is a key part of the development of urban areas, but associated activities like land clearing, operating diesel engines and the use of toxic materials drastically reduce air quality. A recent investigation by the London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory looked into sources of air pollution in the UK and found that construction sites generated 7.5% of all nitrogen oxide emissions, 8% of total large particle emissions (PM10) and 14.5% of overall fine particulate matter emissions (PM2.5). This is primarily a result of using diesel powered diggers, generators and other large machinery.
Air pollutants are often generated and accumulate indoors, causing poor indoor air quality (IAQ) in our homes, offices, and public spaces. There are a number of sources of indoor air pollution, such as high levels of humidity caused by drying clothes and sheets inside – excessive moisture in the air encourages dust mites, mould and damp, all of which can pollute the surrounding air.
Toxic chemicals from substances like paint, cleaning materials, aerosol cans, air fresheners and candles can all contribute to air pollution indoors by releasing VOCs. Cooking can also release particulate matter into the air if it’s not extracted properly. Unless these indoor spaces are ventilated sufficiently, harmful pollutants build up and become trapped in the air as it stagnates. Learn more about how to improve your IAQ here.
Tobacco smoke from products like cigarettes and pipes contains thousands of chemicals, at least 250 of which harm our health, including hydrogen cyanide, benzene, formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. When tobacco smoke is exhaled – particularly in enclosed spaces – it doesn’t only damage the smoker, it’s inhaled as second-hand smoke by surrounding non-smokers too.
There’s no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke, even small amounts can be harmful when inhaled, especially to children or unborn infants. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each year, 1.2 million premature deaths globally can be attributed to breathing second-hand tobacco smoke. It can also cause severe complications during pregnancy such as low birth weight, and increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
When discussing air pollution sources, the conversation usually focuses on man-made sources, however there are some pollutants that can be attributed to the natural environment. For example, particulate matter such as dust can be blown from as far as the Sahara desert to the UK during periods of extreme wind. Similarly, sandstorms can cause hazardous air pollution events in surrounding cities, with coarse particles floating through the air causing visual obstruction and irritation to eyes and airways.
Other natural sources of air pollution include pollen, and volcanic eruptions – as they release particulate matter and harmful gases such as sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide.
Wildfires cause devastating physical destruction to ecosystems across the globe, but they also diminish the quality of our air too. The substances burnt during wildfires release extremely high pollution levels into the surrounding air and wider atmosphere. When tundra permafrost, peat from bogs, and resin-rich boreal forests burn they emit large quantities of harmful gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, as well as toxic contaminants like mercury.
- Take a look at this article, where we debunk five of the most common air quality myths
Health implications of air pollution
As we touched on in ‘Key air pollutants’, the various gases and particles that pollute our air can have serious effects on our health.
Air pollutants can impact various systems and organs within the body; many people assume air pollution only damages the respiratory system, but research shows that harm goes far beyond this, impacting early development, heart disease, and different types of cancer.
- Early development
Pregnancy and childhood are critical developmental stages: with every key body system forming and maturing, many changes take place during these periods. We know that air pollution is harmful to human health, and these implications are only more harmful to developing foetuses, infants and children.
Exposure to high concentrations of polluted air can have irreversible effects, such as improper development of the lungs and long-term respiratory issues such as asthma. It can also lead to premature birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth.
- Heart and circulatory system
Research by the British Heart Foundation shows that air pollution impedes cardiovascular function by restricting blood vessels, causing them to become narrower, harder, and increase blood pressure – all of which cause strain on the heart. Pollutants can also increase the likelihood of blood clots and cause abnormal heart rhythm. This can cause the development of new heart issues, or increase the risk of heart attack and stroke among those with existing heart conditions.
Toxic air has a significant and wide-reaching impact on the circulatory and heart health; according to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 20% of cardiovascular deaths are attributed to exposure to polluted air. The majority of premature deaths linked to outdoor air pollution are from heart disease and stroke.
Asthma is an inflammatory condition affecting the airways of the lungs, the symptoms of which are often lifelong. It leads to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and can cause asthma attacks – which are potentially fatal.
Asthma symptoms can be severely worsened by high levels of air pollution, with two thirds of asthmatics reporting their condition is exacerbated by poor air quality. This happens because the narrowing of airways caused by air pollution triggers asthma, while fine and ultrafine particulate matter (PM) can make their way directly into the lungs.
- Lung function
Exposure to high levels of air pollution, particularly during pregnancy and childhood, can cause potentially lifelong, detrimental effects on lung health. Research shows that in children, long-term exposure to air pollution can prevent proper lung development and increase their likelihood of developing asthma.
Lung health steadily declines as we age, and breathing poor quality air can compound this deterioration. Long-term exposure is linked to the development of lung disease in later life, and particular pollutants – such as particulate matter, ozone, and radon – have been shown to cause lung cancer.
Following significant evidence the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified outdoor air pollution and particulate matter as carcinogens, meaning they can be directly linked to the development of cancer in humans.
In adults, air pollution has been linked to lung cancer, with higher risk levels in built-up, urban areas compared to remote areas. A recent study, however, explored links between PM2.5 and other types of cancer, and found long-term exposure to this type of pollutant increased the risk of mortality from breast, liver and pancreatic cancers.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is currently inconclusive evidence to link air pollution with cancer in children.
Health inequalities: who is worst affected by toxic air?
While the effects of air pollution are wide-reaching, certain groups within society are disproportionately affected. This may be due to pre-existing health conditions or medical conditions such as pregnancy, age, or factors like socioeconomic status. Like many health problems, the intersectionality of this issue means the most vulnerable members of society are worst affected overall.
Lower income communities
Evidence has shown a clear relationship between lower socioeconomic status and increased exposure to air pollution. The reasons behind this are complex, with various economic, social and political factors impacting how environmental risks affect societal groups differently across the world. However, there are several common reasons why lower income groups are worse affected by poor quality air, since they are more likely to:
- Suffer from existing medical conditions
- Have less access to high-quality healthcare
- Live in areas with poorer outdoor environments, often in closer proximity to highly polluted roads or industrial areas which impact indoor and outdoor air quality
- Less able to access healthy food and exercise privileges (such as gym memberships) – both of which alleviate the effects of air pollution by promoting a healthy lifestyle
- Have restricted access to better housing conditions, meaning heating, cooling and cooking systems contribute to poorer quality air
The disadvantages associated with a lower income means the most deprived members of society often bear the brunt of poor air quality – an health issue that all groups contribute to.
This cycle is even more prevalent among those who identify as other marginalized identities, such as those with disabilities, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. This is because their financial struggle is often compounded even further by facing discrimination within the job and housing market, meaning there opportunities to improve the health of their environment are limited even further.
- Read our interview with Destiny Boka Batesa, one of the founding members of activist group Choked Up, where she discusses how air pollution disproportionately impacts people of color, and how to tackle this systemic inequality.
Children and babies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution because it can severely impact proper development of their lungs, inhibit brain development, and cause or worsen conditions such as asthma. In London, approximately 50% of toxic emissions come from road transport: idling around schools, drop off time and rush hour all coinciding means that air pollution is at its peak in the morning.
The breathing height of most primary school children and infants in buggies places them almost directly in line with exhaust fumes on a daily basis, they could be breathing up to 60% more air pollution than adults during the school run.
- Read our interview with Jeffrey Young, founder of Camden Clean Air Initiative to learn more about the non-profit’s aims and hopes for the future.
Another particularly vulnerable sector of society is elderly people, who are more affected by air pollution for a number of reasons:
- They are more likely to suffer from long-term conditions – such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and lung issues – than are worsened by air pollution
- Elderly people have are more likely to require hospitalisation when exposed to high levels of particulate matter
- Recent studies have shown links between air pollution and accelerated cognitive decline, potentially increasing the risk of conditions such as dementia
- Exposure to high levels of particulate matter is linked to increased risk of stroke among the elderly
There’s an abundance of medical advice given to pregnant people to protect the health of the foetus, such as guidance around alcohol, smoking, and avoiding certain foods.
Much less is said, however, about the impacts of exposure to high levels of air pollution from everyday sources like vehicle emissions and second-hand tobacco smoke. As mentioned in ‘Health implications of air pollution’, pregnancy is a critical period for the foetal formation of key systems and organ development. Air pollutants can reach the foetus through the placenta, potentially causing issues such as low birth weight, premature birth, or even miscarriage.
Research shows that pregnant people who lived closest to polluted roads had higher levels of pollutant particles in the womb, which could then hinder development and cause health issues. Evidence of a direct link is still inconclusive, but many studies are being carried out to provide clarity on the exact connection between air pollution and issues in pregnancy.
Existing health conditions
Air pollution can affect many different aspects of our health, from the heart and circulatory system to the development of various types of cancer. For those with pre-existing conditions, exposure to air pollutants can be extremely detrimental to their health.
Lung conditions such as asthma are significantly worsened by high levels of air pollution and poor indoor air quality (IAQ) – the condition can be more severe among children, even leading to hospitalisation if symptoms are uncontrollable.
Research into the effects of air pollution on those with existing heart conditions showed that people who had already suffered from heart attacks had higher mortality rates if they had long-term exposure to air pollution.
What can we do?
Reducing air pollution plays a vital role in improving our health. Breathing better quality air will have a massive impact on overall public health, in turn, relieving strain on health services and contributing to longer, healthier lives.
In a recent development, the World Health Organization (WHO) shared their updated guidelines on air quality, with recommended levels lower than those outlined 15 years ago. These stricter limits are a positive advancement, but they still aren’t safe enough to keep us safe. For instance, despite new recommended levels of PM2.5 being lower than those outlined in 2005, there is no safe level of PM2.5. On top of this, we still have no legal limit for indoor air pollution, and as a nation who spends around 90% of our time indoors, this is a huge issue.
More stringent guidance is definitely a good starting point, but we need to take action at a government, Organization, and individual level – otherwise change will never be enacted.
Governments and councils
Governments across the world are increasingly recognizing air pollution as a public health issue, but concrete changes need to be made. The UK Clean Air Act of 1956 was an effective tool at reducing smog in urban areas, following the Great Smog of London (read more about this defining air quality moment in our guide to indoor air quality). The policy involved replacing the majority of coal in use with gas, oil and electricity, a change which did noticeably reduce air pollution across the city. This shows the potential impact a nationwide policy can have, but the current Clean Air Act has not been updated since 1993 – almost 30 years ago.
Although regulations can be difficult to enforce, it would be a significant development for governments to adopt new legal limits for harmful pollutants that are in line with those recommended by the WHO. In many countries, updated regulations are currently being debated; studies predict that a reduction in the major pollutants that pose a risk to our health would result in the worldwide reduction of many cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
Once these limitations have been established, there are changes that all governments can make to drastically reduce our exposure to high levels of air pollution:
- Implement more, safer cycle lanes through cities to encourage people to cycle rather than drive
- Replace coal, gas and diesel power with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind
- Retrofit public transport to move towards electric power
- Improve the energy efficiency of homes and public buildings to reduce the need for central heating and burning of wood and coal
- Introduce incentives, such as subsidies, to encourage companies and organizations to move to renewable energy sources and reduce their overall emissions
- Introduce scrappage schemes for petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles to encourage individuals to move towards electric cars as soon as possible
- Implement sustainable waste reduction, using combustion only when entirely necessary
- Introduce a widespread initiative to create green spaces to remove pollutants from the air
Local councils can also introduce effective initiatives to reduce air pollution at a more community-based level. For example, encouraging residents to replace a small section of concrete in their front and back gardens with plants would have a notable impact when adopted at scale.
Providing individuals with more information about air pollution is another effective way of reducing the number of pollutants emitted. For instance, highlighting the environmental and financial costs of excessive heating and air conditioning could lead to small changes inside homes and workplaces and more awareness around energy usage. Additionally reminding people of their own responsibility (i.e. schools instructing people outside schools to switch their engines off) are simple methods of encouraging people to reduce air pollution on a daily basis.
As public awareness of air quality continues to grow, all companies and organizations, regardless of sector, must take steps to reduce their contribution to air pollution.
Organizations that work with harmful substances should take the following steps to minimise the generation of pollutants to protect their both employees and the environment:
- Regularly clean machinery and equipment to remove a build up of particulate matter, opting for a vacuum cleaner with an inbuilt HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter
- Properly seal solvent and chemical containers, and minimise the use of these where possible
- Install a ventilation system and regularly air buildings to avoid a build up of toxic pollutants
- Ensure all employees are aware of the dangers of fumes and dust, and are provided with sufficient PPE and safety protocols
Meanwhile, organizations that operate an office-based environment should make changes to their overall ways of working in order to improve air quality:
- Embrace remote working culture: encourage video calls instead of flying employees to different locations unnecessarily
- Implement cycle to work schemes and other initiatives to encourage workers to make more sustainable choices
- Register the building for an AirScore to better understand the health of the indoor space, and what steps can be taken to improve it
Companies across every industry should take the following steps in order to reduce air pollution:
- Gather data to properly establish the overall emission of air pollutants: this includes the entire supply chain and manufacturing process
- Invest in an energy monitoring solution to accurately track and reduce carbon emissions
- Opt for green energy providers
There are small changes all of us can make to reduce our contribution to air pollution. Making more sustainable choices, such as walking or cycling instead of driving, has a large impact on overall emissions. On top of the environmental benefit of this change, it’s actually better for our health too. Even on the most polluted of roads, cyclists experience less exposure to air pollution than those inside cars. This is because in high traffic areas, pollutants make their way into vehicles and become trapped, meaning the concentration of air pollution is actually far higher inside cars than on the surrounding road. Additionally, avoiding highly polluted areas when walking or cycling can reduce exposure to air pollution by as much as 50%.
To better protect ourselves from air pollution, scientists have recommended the use of covers over buggies to protect infants from inhaling high concentrations of harmful pollutants. Those who are predisposed to the effects of air pollution, like asthma sufferers, should avoid outdoor exercise in areas of high pollution. Similarly, it’s advisable that everyone should minimise the time they spend in polluted areas, and regularly check the air pollution levels in their local area.
There are many easy, actionable changes that individuals can make to reduce their own contribution to air pollution and improve their health:
- Switching to green energy providers
- Replace toxic cleaning chemicals with natural products, such as those created by Bower Collective or Delphis Eco
- Switch financial investments (like pensions and savings accounts) to invest in sustainable companies – the default is often highly polluting companies like BP
- Minimise use of wood-burning and coal stoves
- If you can, invest in an electric vehicle rather than one powered by petrol or diesel
- Opt for greener transport options, like travelling via train instead of flying, and walking or cycling instead of driving
Together, we can change the tide of air pollution to improve the health of everyone, as well as fighting against the climate crisis: although the onus is certainly not on individuals, we can all implement easy changes that will benefit us directly.
Making these lifestyle adaptations could bring about significant improvement in the quality of air we breathe, for example, studies show that switching to a plant-based diet could remove up to 8 billion tonnes of CO₂ emissions by 2050. Additionally, organizations like search engine Ecosia, have planted over 100 million trees, which will remove up to 1,771 tonnes of CO₂ from the atmosphere every day.
It’s crucial to note, however, that the most influential organizations in the world – political leaders, governments and large corporations – have the biggest power to enact change, and they need to do more. To reduce air pollution across the globe, fundamental changes from these organizations are required.
It’s also vital to remember that money is a powerful tool that we, as consumers, can use to take direct action and pressure companies into changing their ways. Activists like Mikaela Loach show the immense power that can come with individual action; she is protesting the tax breaks given to UK oil and gas companies as they directly conflict with net zero emission targets outlined by the UK government.
Significant change is vital in reducing air pollution globally, preventing millions of premature deaths each year and improving the health of ecosystems across the world.