In late January, the EU posed an ultimatum that Britain and eight other states needed to show how they are going to comply with EU air pollution laws or they would face the European court of justice. It was revealed that the UK reached its 2018 limit for air pollution in just the year’s first month. Worse still, the UK regularly exceeds EU air pollution limits and it has done since 2010. The UK was told by courts that they need to take more action in 45 English local authority areas. So, what are the effects of this air pollution on our health and why should we care?
Breathing toxic air is one of the leading causes of premature death around the world, with 6.5 million people dying early as a consequence. According to Environmental Protection Agency there are six major pollutants that can impact on human health and well-being. These are: particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ground-level ozone, and lead. In developed countries such as the UK the major air polluters are particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide from fossil fuel combustion, particularly in diesel and petrol engines.
Long-term exposure to pollutants like nitrogen and sulphur oxides (NOx and SOx) can contribute to a range of health problems, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, acute respiratory infections, stroke, heart disease and lung cancer. Pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and particulates have been linked to an estimated 40,000 early deaths in the UK alone each year, according to the Royal College of Physicians.
In addition to damaging our lungs, air pollution has recently been linked with dementia, diabetes and obesity. And it is especially harmful to the most vulnerable, such as children, the elderly and people with other health conditions. A link has also been found between foetal exposure to particulate matter 2.5 micrometres or less (PM2.5) and increased risk of autism. There is emerging evidence that air pollution adversely affects both the developing and ageing brain, although this needs to be validated with more studies.
A recent study by Boston university suggested that pollution may even influence our hormones. The results suggested that exposure to air pollution may increase the likelihood of irregular periods, especially among younger girls.
In the UK, the main culprits of air pollution are road vehicles, combustion processes carried out by industrial and commercial sectors, power stations, and ships passing through UK waters. Global estimates suggest ships are responsible for 15 per cent of NOx and 8 per cent of sulphur gas worldwide. More recently, perfume and cleaning products were revealed to be a major source of air pollution. Such examples include cleaning agents, paint, perfume, lotions, glues, inks and pesticides. These were found to contribute almost an equal amount to air pollution as traffic.
New studies have also found that during production and distribution of natural gas and fracking, up to three times more ethane and propane leak into the atmosphere than previously thought. This is particularly concerning, as these gasses can react with traffic fumes under UV light to form ozone, a greenhouse gas, and a key component in smog. The ozone layer is crucial for absorbing the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, which would otherwise be damaging to life on earth. However, low-level or tropospheric ozone is unwelcome. It can cause breathing problems by making the airways constrict, while fine airborne particles are linked to heart and lung disease.
What can be done to counteract this? We can all help in reducing emissions by making fewer car journeys, aiming for energy efficiency in our homes and by using unscented personal care products. Unfortunately, shipping pollution is less under our control as it’s a cornerstone of global trade. Around 90% of our purchased goods will have crossed the sea at some point and this is not something that is controlled by EU or national legislation. Instead, it is regulated by International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which does not have a good track record for moving fast on environmental regulation. However, our government does have the power to set pollution limits for the ships visiting our ports and should follow suit of other nations which are pursuing a transition away from fossil fuels in shipping.
The UK government’s decision to ban the sale of all petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040 is certainly a step in the right direction. However, fracking is set to continue more intensely than before this year in the UK, despite strong opposition. How long must we hold our breath waiting for what is arguably our most fundamental human right – clean air?