Air pollution – a new problem?

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Air pollutionGraham Applegate, a Principal Policy Officer in our Air Unit gives an overview of air pollution and the measures taken to improve air quality.

Air pollution has recently become a high profile environmental issue, receiving significant coverage in the media. It may seem like a new problem, but at early as the 17th century, air pollution was recognised as a significant environmental problem with the publication of the Fumifugium by John Evelyn in 1661, which outlined the impacts of coal burning in London. Levels of air pollution continued to rise (with little action) through the Industrial Revolution until the mid-20th century. Poor air quality was widely recognised and accepted as part of everyday life, with people having little understanding of its health and environmental impacts.

The turning point

Parts of the UK had been subject to significant air pollution events since the Industrial Revolution. In 1952, London was subjected to a severe smog event (a combination of SMoke, fOG and other air pollutants) from the 5 – 9 December, caused by meteorological conditions in conjunction with emissions from domestic coal-burning, factory chimneys, transport and pollution brought in from Europe. The air pollution was so dense it reduced visibility to less than a few metres (and almost zero at night) and caused widespread disruption to travel. It is estimated that more than 4,000 people died and up to 100,000 people were made ill as a result of exposure to the smog.

A government committee was established to look at the causes of the air pollution and measures which could be taken to reduce the problem. The result was the Clean Air Act of 1956 (later extended in 1968 and updated in 1993) which controlled emissions of smoke, particles, dust and grit from domestic, commercial and industrial fuel combustion. Since the introduction of this legislation, there has been a wide range of policy and legislation to control air pollution. Much of this has originated from the European Union and air pollution is now well controlled compared to the past.

Why is air pollution a problem?

The emission of pollution to air can have significant impacts from both a health and environmental perspective. Today’s levels of air pollution may not harm healthy people in the short-term, but sensitive members of the population (such as the very young, the elderly, pregnant women and those with existing health problems (such as lung or heart problems)) can be severely affected by exposure to increased levels of air pollution.

Air pollution also impacts the environment by contributing to climate change and causing acid rain, eutrophication and nitrification of ecosystems, damage to crops and has physical impacts on the built environment. Further information in air pollution and pollutants can be found in our Making the case for the environment – air quality and Scotland’s Environment Web.

The current situation

Despite the fact that we do not suffer the thick smog events of the past, air pollution remains an issue of major concern. Scotland has very good air quality compared to the rest of the UK; however, it remains a significant environmental problem in our urban centres and during certain meteorological conditions.

The main sources of air pollution have now changed from heavy industry and energy generation to transport, and the dense ‘pea soup’ smogs have been replaced with invisible photochemical smogs (which appear as a haze/discolouration of the atmosphere). Despite the significant improvements in air quality over the last 60 years, air pollution continues to have impacts on the health of the population of Scotland and it is estimated that air pollution currently contributes to the deaths of almost 2,100 people annually. It also has significant economic impacts, with estimates of costs of between £16 – 20 billion per year for the UK.

The future

Scotland is seeking to have the best quality of air in Europe. Scottish Government, SEPA and Transport Scotland (along with other partner organisations) published the Cleaner Air for Scotland (CAFS) Strategy in November 2015. The strategy aims to “provide a national strategy within which we can all work together towards the common aim of achieving the best possible air quality for Scotland”. The strategy aims to deliver actions to improve air quality across six main areas, these being:

  • Health
  • Transport
  • Place-making
  • Climate change
  • Legislation and policy
  • Communications

CAFS outlines the contribution that better air quality can make to sustainable economic growth whilst improving health and the natural environment, and reducing inequalities for the citizens of Scotland. It will run until 2020 in the first instance and provide the policy basis for improving air quality in Scotland.

In addition to CAFS, we can all make an individual difference to improve air quality by choosing the most efficient way to travel, use energy efficiently and reducing our waste. The measures necessary to further improve air quality will require concerted action at all levels and ultimately a change in the behaviours and culture of the population as a whole. While we have come a long way in improving our air quality there is still much we can, and need to, do.

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