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Air quality

Poor air quality - Why we should care?

The health impacts of poor air quality have long been established, especially with regard to respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema, which can be exacerbated by air pollution. Recent research has estimated that air pollution reduces the life expectancy of every person in the UK by 7-8 months. The air in the UK is at its cleanest since the 1950s, when legislation was first introduced to address the problems; however, the UK is projected to miss objectives for particulates, ozone and nitrogen dioxide and poor air quality still has a negative impact on peoples' health.

The air quality objectives and policy options for improving air quality are set out in the UK Air Quality Strategy . The first strategy was adopted in 1997, with the most recent version published in 2007. The strategy highlights the integral role played by councils in managing air quality and achieving the Government's objectives through both Pollution Prevention and Control and Local Air Quality Management. It also set out a timetable for local authorities to review and assess air quality in their area against prescribed levels.

The continued importance of councils' work in tackling air pollution was recently recognised by the Rogers Review.

Air quality Information

Stroud District air quality

The concentrations in the District do not exceed the nationally set levels.

At present it is only necessary for Nitrogen Dioxide to be monitored which we carry out at twenty one locations in the District.

Further information about air pollution can be found at www.airquality.co.uk

Various industrial processes are inspected and controlled by Permits issued by either the local authority or the Environment Agency.

Radon Advice

Public Health England's Radon Measurement Services web resource provides comprehensive information including action level maps of the UK. You can also order a radon measurement pack from the web site for approximately £50 with convenient payment by credit card. The cost covers all costs relating to a radon test including the provision of detectors, their postal return, their analysis and a formal report of the result.

Please contact Environmental Health Department for general advice by phoning 01453 754478, or e-mail: environmental.health@stroud.gov.uk.

The Rogers Review

The Rogers Review, published in March 2007, recommended six national enforcement priorities for local authority regulatory services, one of which is air quality. The reasoning for the recommendation of air quality to be included as a priority was given as follows:

"Air quality is a high national political priority and actions taken to improve it will also contribute to tackling climate change. Local authorities have a vital role to play in delivering better outcomes. Air quality is a national enforcement priority because it impacts on whole populations, particularly the elderly and those more susceptible to air pollution. It is politically important to emphasize the role that local authorities can play in reducing its impacts, and its trans-boundary nature means that local action contributes to national outcomes."

Air Quality Notes

In both developed and rapidly industrializing countries, the major historic air pollution problem has typically been high levels of smoke and sulphur dioxide, arising from the combustion of sulphur-containing fossil fuels, such as coal.

The major threat to clean air is now posed by traffic emissions. Petrol and diesel engined motor vehicles emit a wide variety of pollutants, principally carbon monoxide (CO), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulates (PM10), which have an increasing impact on air quality.

In addition photochemical reactions resulting from the action of sunlight on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and VOCs from vehicles leads to the formation of ozone. This is a secondary long-range pollutant, which impacts in rural areas often far from the original emission site. Acid rain is another long-range pollutant influenced by vehicle NOx emissions.

Generally industrial and domestic pollutant sources, together with their impact on air quality, tend to be steady state or improving with time. However, traffic pollution problems are worsening world-wide.

Below is an introduction to the principal pollutants produced by industrial, domestic and traffic sources.

Nitrogen Oxides

Nitric oxide (NO) is mainly derived from road transport emissions and other combustion processes, is not considered to be harmful to health. However, once released to the atmosphere, NO is usually very rapidly oxidised to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is harmful to health. NO2 and NO are both oxides of nitrogen and together are referred to as nitrogen oxides (NOx).

Nitrogen dioxide can irritate the lungs and lower resistance to respiratory infections such as influenza. Continued or frequent exposure to concentrations that are typically much higher than those normally found in the ambient air may cause increased incidence of acute respiratory illness in children.

Particles

Fine particles are composed of a wide range of materials arising from a variety of sources including:

  • Combustion sources (mainly road traffic)
  • Secondary particles, mainly sulphates and nitrates formed by chemical reactions in the atmosphere, and often transported from far across Europe
  • Coarse particles, suspended soils and dusts (e.g. from the Sahara), seasalt, biological particles and particles from construction work

Particles are measured in a number of different size fractions according to their mean aerodynamic diameter. Most monitoring is currently focussed on PM10 but finer fractions such as PM2.5 and PM1 are becoming of increasing interest in terms of health effects. Fine particles can be carried deep into the lungs where they can cause inflammation and a worsening of the condition of people with heart and lung diseases. In addition, they may carry surface-absorbed carcinogenic compounds into the lungs.

Ozone

Ozone (O3) is not emitted directly from any man made source in any significant quantities. In the lower atmosphere, O3 is primarily formed by a complicated series of chemical reactions initiated by sunlight.

These reactions can be summarised as the sunlight-initiated oxidation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of nitrogen oxides (NOx). The sources of VOCs are similar to those described for NOx above, but also include other activities such as solvent use and petrol distribution and handling.

The reactions can take hours or days. Therefore ozone measured at a particular location may have arisen from VOC and NOx emissions many miles away. Maximum concentrations generally occur downwind of the source of the precursor pollutant emissions. Ozone irritates the airways of the lungs, increasing the symptoms of those suffering from asthma and lung diseases.

1,3-Butadiene

1,3-butadiene, like benzene, is a VOC emitted into the atmosphere principally from fuel combustion of petrol and diesel vehicles. It is also an important chemical in certain industrial processes, particularly the manufacture of synthetic rubber.

Possible chronic health effects include cancer, central nervous system disorders, liver and kidney damage, reproductive disorders and birth defects.

Benzene

Benzene is what is known as a VOC. It is a minor constituent of petrol, is used as a fluid for cleaning, in the extraction of oils from seeds and nuts, in the printing process and cigarette smoke. It is also used in the manufacture of chemicals, such as plastics, resins, nylon and synthetic fibres, detergents, explosives, drugs and dyes.

The main source in the atmosphere in Europe is the distribution and combustion of petrol. Of these, combustion by petrol vehicles is the biggest source (over 70% of total emissions).
Possible chronic health effects include cancer, central nervous system disorders, liver and kidney damage, reproductive disorders and birth defects.

Sulphur dioxide

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is produced when a material, or fuel, containing sulphur is burned. Globally, much of the SO2 in the atmosphere comes from natural sources, but in the UK the predominant source is power stations burning fossil fuels. Widespread domestic use of coal can result in high local concentrations.

Even moderate concentrations may result in a fall in lung function in asthmatics. Tightness in the chest and coughing occur at high levels and asthmatics may require medical help. SO2 pollution is considered more harmful when particulate and other pollutant concentrations are high.

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, odourless, poisonous gas produced by incomplete, or inefficient combustion of fuel. It is predominantly produced by road transport, in particular, petrol-engine vehicles.

This gas prevents the normal transport of oxygen by the blood. This can lead to a significant reduction in the supply of oxygen to the heart, particularly in people suffering from heart disease.

Lead

Since the introduction of unleaded petrol in the UK, there has been a significant reduction in urban lead levels. In recent years industry, in particular secondary non-ferrous metal smelters, have become the most significant contributors to emissions of lead. The highest concentrations of lead and heavy metals are now therefore found around these installations in industrial areas.

Even small amounts of lead can be harmful, especially to infants and young children. In addition, lead taken in by the mother can interfere with the health of the unborn child. Exposure has also been linked to impaired mental function, visual-motor performance and neurological damage in children and memory and attention span.

Toxic organic micropollutants TOMPS

TOMPS are produced by the incomplete combustion of fuels. They comprise a complex range of chemicals some of which, although they are emitted in very small quantities, are highly toxic or carcinogenic. Compounds in this category include:

  • Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Dioxins
  • Furans
  • TOMPS can cause a wide range of effects, from cancer, to reduced immunity, to nervous system disorders and interfering with child development. There is no threshold dose - the tiniest amount can cause damage.

This page was last updated: 9 August 2017

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