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Air quality

Air pollution used to be a more visible problem in the UK when smoke from factory chimneys and domestic coal fires filled the skies in some parts of the country. Today, smogs are things of the past and the air we breathe is much cleaner thanks to legislation such as the Clean Air Acts and the work of environmental health practitioners and others in addressing and reducing air pollution.

Air pollution has not gone away though, and although emissions from industrial sources have decreased in modern times due to a combination of strict legislation, technological advances and economic change, air pollution is still a problem. That is not least due to our growing transport fleets, public, private and commercial.

Exposure to high levels of air pollutants can cause breathing problems and can make respiratory diseases such as asthma worse. This may particularly be a problem for elderly or vulnerable people. Small particles are also implicated in cardiovascular disease.

The Government’s strategy for improving air quality in the UK is set out currently in a 2007 document called the UK Air Quality Strategy. It lays down a number of air quality objectives and policy options to improve the air we breathe. These include the EU air quality standards which the UK is required to meet.

The CIEH is currently supporting a call by the Healthy Air Campaign for a new cross-government approach to tackle the sources of air pollution while maximising the co-benefits for physical activity, health inequalities, congestion and climate change. The Campaign, to which the CIEH belongs, is asking the Government to take a number of urgent steps to improve air quality such as supporting a more ambitious EU air package which delivers real improvements in urban air quality through strict national emissions targets and developing a new National Air Quality Strategy with national air quality objectives for 2030 which align with WHO guidelines. It also wants to see a dramatic decrease in the use of diesel, through a range of measures including a national network of low emission zones, and taxation changes and better public information on air pollution, including a comprehensive warning system for pollution episodes and clinical advice.

Local Air Quality Management

Environmental health practitioners (EHPs) work on the front line when it comes to improving air quality. Under section 82 of the Environment Act 1995 they are required to carry out regular reviews and assessments of air quality in their area against standards and objectives prescribed in regulations for the purpose of local air quality management (LAQM) and must then take action if air quality is found to breach the regulations. EHPs also help to regulate certain types of industrial processes that cause air pollution. In addition, they provide advice to businesses and others on how to minimise air pollution and they investigate complaints.

Indoor air pollution

Indoor air can also contain pollutants from sources such as cooking and heating appliances. Levels of pollutants in indoor air often exceed those found in outdoor air, due to confined space and the lack of ventilation, particularly in new homes which are designed to be increasingly air-tight to reduce heat loss and conserve energy. In addition, paints, solvents, carpets, furniture, cleaning materials, electrical appliances and other consumer products used in the home can all release potentially harmful substances into the air.

Further information