What’s the matter? Why particulates pose such a problem to our health: Clean Air Day 2023

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To mark this year’s Clean Air Day, Senior Environmental Consultant Anthony Armitage tells ICON readers why improving air quality is as vital as our next breath. 

 

The health impacts of air pollution are not new. In fact, it could be argued that we in the West are far less exposed to the choking smokes of solid fuel fires than our ancestors were.

The Great Smog of London in 1952, lasting just five days, was estimated to have killed over 10,000 Londoners and caused respiratory problems in over 100,000 people. The Clean Air Act 1956 was borne out of the Great Smog, stimulating a move to gas and electric domestic heating. 

Though we may not suffer such dramatic smog events in the UK anymore, air pollution is still causing premature deaths and respiratory diseases. In 2010, it the cost of health impacts of air pollution was estimated anywhere between £8 to £20 billion per annum, with an associated 28,000 to 36,000 premature deaths. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), lung cancer, coronary heart disease and asthma are several of air pollution’s comorbidities. 

Noxious gases such as nitrogen dioxide and low-level ozone are still an issue, but of particular concern is small particulate matter, especially particles smaller than 10 micrometres (PM10) and those under 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5) in diameter. Ultrafine particles (PM0.1) have been shown to pass from the lungs directly into the bloodstream. A strand of hair is anywhere between 20 – 40 micrometres in diameter to help put things into scale. 

About 50% of small particulate matter is from natural sources, such as pollen and sea spray. The other half is from the burning of fossil fuels and wood, and tyre and brake wear from vehicles. There are also particles of microplastics floating around cities from synthetic clothing! 

The Government’s Clean Air Strategy, Environment Act 2021 and new Environmental Targets (Fine Particulate Matter) (England) Regulations 2023 bring into focus and set legally binding targets to reduce levels of PM2.5 as they are implicated in health impacts and the reduction of life expectancy.  

Health issues arise from the direct irritation of the respiratory system by gases and particulates. Asthma, especially in children, is triggered or exacerbated by air pollution. A 2021 study showed a direct correlation with short term exposure to air pollutants and an increase in GP consultations and inhaler prescriptions, especially for children.

This places additional demand on our primary care health system, and the prescription of inhalers has an additional negative environmental consequence: the propellant used in most inhalers for children is a potent greenhouse gas – approximately 1,300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The NHS is actively looking into mitigating the environmental impact of these inhalers, but presently, we have the paradox of dealing with one environmental problem by creating another. 

Diesel vehicles such as cars and light vans are a significant source of nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5, with urban environments, especially those next to main roads, having dangerous levels of PM2.5. Ultra-low emissions and zero emission vehicles do not pose such a threat, though particulates will still be created through brake and tyre wear. Transitioning to electric vehicles is the fastest route to getting localised air pollution under control and within safe limits and is something that ties is with other net zero goals. 

Aside from noxious gases and particulates from burning things such as fossil fuels, indoor air pollution can be an equally insidious problem. Many modern products, building materials and furnishings can give rise to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which can cause a variety of adverse health effects, like those caused by PM2.5 and noxious gases. Another issue is that of damp and mould. 

COVID-19 has shown to role of good ventilation, and the same applies for mitigating the effects of indoor air pollution. Ensuring premises have adequate air flow, and if you have an installed ventilation system, making sure the filters are routinely changed massively improve indoor air quality. There are no legal parameters for indoor air quality in the UK, though government guidance is available 

But what’s in the building also has a huge impact. Cleaning chemicals, detergents, air fresheners, paints, varnishes, and the use of electronic devices such as printers, emit VOCs. Other sources of VOCs, in particular formaldehyde, include manufactured wood products (such as Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF)), carpets and upholstery.  

Businesses, as part of their environmental management and net zero goals, should be mindful of how they can also improve outdoor and indoor air quality by their activities. Using a circular economic approach, a transition to electric vehicles and choosing more natural furnishings and cleaning products for use in premises are the best ways to improve air quality in the short term, for both the public and employees. 

 

Anthony Armitage is a Senior Environmental Consultant at Inspired PLC.