7 things you didn't know about the air you breathe

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Air pollution

The air we breathe

It has been estimated that 90% of the world’s population are living in locations where the air pollution exceeds the ‘relatively safe’ levels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In addition, outdoor air pollution has been linked to 40,000 premature deaths per year in the UK. It is therefore no surprise that WHO have labelled air pollution as a public health emergency.

90% of the world’s population are living in locations where the air pollution exceeds the ‘relatively safe’ levels recommended by the World Health Organisation

So what's contributing or creating air pollution? Here are seven things you may not know about air pollution and the air you breathe.

1. Toxicity of school runs

In one day, children only spend an average of eight hours at school. However, this makes up almost half (44%) of their exposure to air pollution, with up to 2,000 schools and nurseries in the UK being exposed to unsafe levels of pollutions. Much of this pollution comes from the daily school run, where parents drive up to the gates to drop their children off at school. The cars may only be there for a moment, but the toxic fumes that they produce stay behind with the school.

With up to 2,000 schools and nurseries in the UK being exposed to unsafe levels of pollutions

2. Household pollution

WHO suggests that each year, around 3.8 million deaths can be linked to exposure to household air pollution. Things like deodorant, drying clothes inside, cleaning products and air fresheners all contribute to household air pollution. Although the effects of these are minor, there are others which have a more harmful effect, such as smoke from open fires, cooking or tobacco.

3. Pollution in the workplace

Indoor air pollution can be two to five times greater indoors than outdoors, and although opening a window seems like the solution, it can increase the levels of noise and air pollution coming in from outside. Poor air quality in the workplace is detrimental to productivity – you’re probably familiar with the mid-afternoon lull where your head seems to ache, and you can’t seem to concentrate. Chances are, air pollution is contributing to the lull.

Indoor air pollution can be two to five times greater indoors than outdoors

4. Toxic farming

The use of fertilisers and animal waste in farming is the “biggest single cause of the worst air pollution in Europe”. Animal manure used in farming is a big source of ammonia, which is a powerful pollutant contributing to the negative impacts of air pollution. More than four fifths of ammonia emissions come from agriculture. As a result, new government plans to reduce air pollution proposes that farmers use less fertiliser in order to reduce ammonia emissions. This may involve banning the spraying of liquid manure onto fields – a common agricultural practice.

“Toxic farming is the biggest single cause of the worst air pollution in Europe”

5. Air pollution and indoor exercise

We all know how important it is to exercise, but location is just as important - if not more so - than the exercise we do. Researchers have suggested that gyms with poor ventilation exacerbates poor air quality, with dust being moved around by vigorous movement and high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) being produced from people exercising. This poor ventilation helps contribute to the negative impact of air pollution, making the health benefits of exercise less. It is therefore important for gyms to have appropriate ventilation systems to reduce this impact.

6. Air pollution and outdoor exercise

As with gyms, there are things which affect air quality and reduce the impact of exercise. Daily walks are a good way to exercise, particularly for those who are unable to participate in the more vigorous exercise associated with visiting a gym. However, when walking along a busy road the health benefits are often lost because of the pollution produced by traffic and congestion. Although this has more of an impact on older people and those who already have breathing conditions, rethinking exercise routes to favour greener areas would be beneficial for all.

7. The toxic underground

Researchers have recently found that pollution levels inside the London Underground are up to 30 times higher than those around busy roads above ground. This adverse position of the London Underground compared to roads is due to the age and depth of the Underground tunnels. Although the impact of these high levels of pollution is unknown, relatively little time is spent underground during commutes and there is little evidence regarding its effects. The chair of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) is therefore recommending that people continue using the tube until a better understanding is reached – just try and avoid staying underground for too long!

Pollution levels in the London Underground are up to 30 times higher than those around busy roads above ground

So, there you have it - 7 facts about our air which may seem easy to overlook but much harder to overcome. Actually, there are little things which you can do to help overcome these. Rather than driving all the way to school, drop your child off a road or two away from school and walk them the short distance to school to contribute to cleaner air. Take a look at your ventilation indoors and aim to improve it and go for walks in areas with little or no traffic when you start to feel trapped indoors. It’s also worth looking at your every-day journeys. If you can, try switching to walking or using public transport once a week. Even small changes can make a difference so make at least one today.

7 things you didn't know about the air you breathe

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