Earlier this year a toxic air alert was issued in London by Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London after very high pollution levels triggered a warning system. This was the first time the Mayor had declared a top-level alert under new measures to monitor air pollution in the capital.
The advice issued by the Mayor’s office was for the elderly, adults and children with lung problems, and adults with heart problems to avoid strenuous physical activity and for all Londoner’s to reduce strenuous physical activity outdoors even if they were fit.
Growing pollution problems in our cities is a major concern, we already know how pollution can affect people with heart and lung conditions, such as asthma, but whilst governments are trying to introduce ways to improve air quality, the headlines still keep raising concerns about the air we breathe. Whilst people with underlying heart and lung diseases are more at risk from poor air quality, pollution affects us all – for example children’s lungs are vulnerable to long-term damage if they are repeatedly exposed to high air pollution and even healthy adults can be affected.
One of the main culprits for poor air is nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a pollutant that inflames the lining of the lungs, which can reduce immunity to lung infections. This can cause problems such as wheezing, coughing, colds, flu and bronchitis.
The main sources of nitrogen dioxide are road traffic and burning fossil fuels. This is a big problem in large cities like London, but across the country, the Government estimates 23,500 people die prematurely from NO2 pollution.
From the recent scandals involving car makers cheating tests on car emissions to evidence suggesting a link between dementia and living next to a busy road, pollution is an issue none of us can ignore. In a drive to clean up our air, we switched to unleaded petrol and diesel cars – now we are reading that diesel car emissions are a major cause of NO2 pollution. Given that we all need to live, breathe and travel, just what can we do to try and protect ourselves from air pollution?
There are many different sources of pollution in the UK: emissions from cars, lorries, buses, taxis, aeroplanes, industry and other machinery, such as on building sites and from gas for heating homes and offices. So what can we do to try and reduce air pollution? We can all help by making small changes, starting with using less energy. Many people do not make the connection between energy consumption and pollution but by using less power, consumers can reduce the amount of toxic fumes released by power plants and conserve the earth’s natural resources. Here are some ways we can all help.
• Being more energy conscious, simple steps such as: remembering to turn off lights, computers, and electric appliances when not in use.
• Switching to more energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances will reduce energy consumption.
• Run dishwashers and clothes washers only when full.
• Reduce the amount we drive – instead try to walk, use public transport or try to combine different outings into one trip rather than several individual trips.
• Turn your car off when you are stationary for a while – particularly when waiting at the school gates.
• Be careful not to spill petrol when filling up your car.
• Use water-based or solvent free paints whenever possible and buy products that say “low VOC”.
Making a few simple changes can potentially reduce pollution but how can we protect ourselves? To improve air quality in your home regularly air rooms by opening windows and skylights. Think about what chemicals you use at home; air-fresheners, cleaning agents, paints to more obvious ones like no smoking in the house. When outdoors avoid busy roads especially at rush hour, walk using smaller side roads where pollution from cars should be less. Plan exercising outside in places, or times of the day, when pollution will be lower. You can use the internet or download an app to check pollution levels in your area and plan your routes and other activities accordingly.
Pollutant levels can often be higher inside your car than outside, especially if you are stationary in heavy traffic because cars take in emissions from surrounding vehicles and recirculate them. Opening or closing a car’s windows and vents can reduce some pollutants but may increase others. So when in stationary traffic keep a distance from the vehicle in front, keep windows up and the ventilation set to recirculate. Using the air conditioner set to use recirculated air, not outdoor air, can filter out some of the particulate matter, but you need to think about the air quality already in the car that is being recycled. For example, smoking inside a car will mean the harmful chemicals are trapped inside and will build up. When you are in light moving traffic you can open windows a bit to let in some fresh air.