Urban air pollution: out of sight, out of mind

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Cycling through traffic in Glasgow City centre

Life on earth for us wouldn’t be possible without it, but recent research suggests that the quality of the air we breathe in some areas of our towns and cities could be responsible for the loss of more lives than accidents on our roads.

Air pollution, as identified by the World Health Organisation, has become one of the biggest environmental risks to human health. Unlike the dense smog and smoking chimneys of the past, today’s air pollution is largely considered invisible; caused mainly by very fine particles from car exhausts that can descend into the lungs and aggravate existing health problems such as asthma and heart and respiratory disease.

The problem is world wide and Scotland is no exception, with air quality in some areas of our cities considered to be of poor quality for human health.

2013 is the European Year of Air so now is the perfect time for us all to commit to doing something to improve our local air quality. To raise awareness of the issues and highlight the actions we can take to tackle the problem, we hosted an event at this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival.

During an evening of presentations, debate and demonstrations we explored the state of Scotland’s urban air quality, the impact it has on human health and the measures we can all take in tackling the problem.

Air pollution is not a new issue and has been a concern in Scotland, and other industrialised countries, for many years. Through tighter controls over emissions from industry and changes in fuel sources (such as our shift from burning coal to burning natural gas), considerable progress has been made over the past 20 years; and now the quality of our air in Scotland is generally good.

However, within the urban environment there are still areas where air quality is considered poor, exceeding standards set by Europe, and where it can present a risk to the health of individuals and their environment. In the past, poor air quality was associated with smog – a dense heavy smoke that could linger for days across our towns and cities. Today, air pollution is largely invisible, consisting of gases, such as oxides of nitrogen and sulphur, and fine invisible particles, known as particulate matter. These air pollutants are emitted from sources such as vehicle exhausts, with the areas identified as worse affected being those close to heavily congested roads, transport corridors and city centres.

We are increasingly aware of the harmful effects of air pollution on health and research has shown that long-term exposure to poor air quality can shorten lives. For the majority of people, the impacts of air pollution on health are relatively minor, with some people experiencing very mild symptoms such as an irritation to the nose and throat following short exposure, for example, after walking down a heavily congested city centre street. For those people who have existing health problems such as asthma, or who are exposed on a long-term basis or to high levels of air pollutants, the effects increase in severity; from the worsening of existing medical conditions and increased visits to the doctor, to admission to hospital and, in extreme cases, premature death.

A report published in 2010 by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) estimates that the impact of air pollution on public health in the UK is equivalent to 29,000 early deaths or the shortening of life by an average of six months. Even exposure to pollutants from vehicle exhausts at low levels can be harmful. Some of the very fine particles found in exhaust fumes can carry toxins, and when breathed in, can enter our lungs and penetrate the lung tissue where a range of symptoms can be triggered. Most of the health problems associated with urban air pollution are associated with the lungs and respiratory system, with links being made between exposure to air pollution and asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer. Research carried out in the US has also shown that long-term exposure to the very fine particles found in exhaust fumes can contribute to heart disease.

When it comes to tackling the problem of urban air pollution everyone, from government and local authorities to the general public, has an important role to play. Government is responsible for ensuring that environmental legislation and policy continue to address air pollution and focus on emission control and reduction of pollutants that are harmful to the environment and health.

As part of the European Year of Air, the European Commission is carrying out a review of all EU air policy, with particular focus on transport and traffic emissions. Local authorities are responsible for reviewing and assessing air quality and taking action in areas where the need for improvement has been identified. These actions include:

• Designation of air quality management areas (AQMA). There are currently 29 AQMAs in Scotland, mainly within local authorities in the central belt and heavily populated areas. The majority of AQMAs have been designated in relation to traffic related pollutants.

• Develop and deliver action plans for AQMAs. These action plans are designed to tackle air quality issues specific to each AQMA and identify the measures that need to be put in place to improve air quality.

• Use town planning to introduce green infrastructure and reduce the need to travel. Planting trees along roads helps remove pollutants from the air and increasing the amount of open green spaces within a town, such as parks and allotments, creates space for exhaust fumes to disperse.

• Promote the use of low carbon cars and buses, active travel (walking and cycling) and public transport.

• Improved traffic management, by developing sophisticated traffic management systems that monitor and maintain the flow of traffic, alter the priority of traffic light sequences to avoid traffic build up and reduce air pollution.

As individuals we all have a part to play in improving our local air quality, whether it is as simple as walking or our choice on how we travel. By choosing to walk or cycle rather than take the car for short journeys you can help reduce the volume of traffic on the road and the level of pollutants released into the environment from exhaust fumes. Making better use of public transport is another alternative to travelling by car and can also help reduce the volume of traffic on the road.

At SEPA we also have a role to play, and are working with Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government on a range of measures aimed at raising awareness about the issues around air quality; both the benefits of improving air quality and the mechanisms to achieve such improvements. The Edinburgh International Science Festival was the first step towards achieving this goal.


[alert type=”info”]Speakers at the Air pollution: out of sight, out of mind event included Dr Colin Gillespie (SEPA), Prof. Frank Kelly (King’s College London), Drew Hill (Transport Scotland), and Prof John Cherrie and Dr Karen Galea (IOM). If you would like to view the slides from any of the speaker’s presentations, please contact the Communications Team by emailing communications@sepa.org.uk [/alert]
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