Exclusive: charity calls out ‘confusing’ air pollution alerts

Disparities between air pollution forecasts and actual measurements this week highlight how difficult it can be to manage your exposure and how confusing the government’s alert system is, according to Asthma + Lung UK.

Yesterday’s (17 August) air pollution forecast showed very high pollution levels in the southeast of England, but in reality, monitoring stations recording low levels of air pollution.

According to Defra’s UK-AIR, generally low levels of air pollution were expected on 17 August, perhaps with patches of moderate pollution in the southeast.

However, the model suggested a large swathe of high levels of air pollution in the southeast due to an overestimate of wildfire particulates from the continent, even though this had a very low probability of occurrence.

UK-AIR’s forecast for today, issued at 5am on Wednesday 17 August, read: ‘Once again, the model suggests high levels of pollution across the southeast, through this is currently not expected.’ The forecast has since been updated to remove mention of the modelled high pollution event.

This may cause confusion for vulnerable people, such as asthma sufferers, who may unnecessarily adapt their behaviour to avoid exposing themselves to high levels of air pollution.

A screenshot from Defra’s UK-AIR air pollution forecast on the morning of 17 August shows high air pollution levels predicted in purple.

Harriet Wilson-Edwards, Senior Policy Manager for clean air at Asthma + Lung UK, said: ‘We estimate that toxic air triggers symptoms for 3.4 million people living with lung conditions such as asthma and COPD, which can leave them fighting for breath or at risk of a life-threatening asthma attack. It’s therefore extremely important that these individuals who are at greatest risk from breathing dirty are alerted when air pollution levels are high, so they can take steps to protect themselves.

‘Our recent Alerting the Nation report found 80% of people with lung conditions said they didn’t use the government’s air pollution alerts, which we believe in part is because the alerts are confusing and hard to understand. Today’s conflicting messaging shows just how difficult it can be to manage your exposure; highlighting the shortcomings of a disjointed system that relies on separate modelling and monitoring practices that don’t talk to each other. 

‘As climate change gets worse, so will the quality of our air. The extended heat waves, droughts, and subsequent wildfires we are seeing across Europe and right here in the UK are having a devastating impact on the quality of the air we breathe, yet our air pollution alerts system is not currently capable of providing clear, coherent messaging to help people know what steps they need to take to protect their health.

‘We need a system that protects those who are most vulnerable, providing clear and accurate information to the general public alongside medically accurate health advice and measures that they can take to reduce their exposure and contribution to air pollution. We need the government to take the lead on this. One of the best ways they can show us they mean business would be to commit to curbing the levels of the most harmful form of air pollution to human health (PM2.5) in line with World Health Organization guidelines by 2030, rather than current proposals which delay compliance until 2040.’

Photo credit: UK-AIR / Supplied by Asthma + Lung UK


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1 year ago


1 year ago

I suspect the problem is that the government forecast modeling is very general and combines particles, ozone, NO2 predictions etc. Obviously they want to give us adequate warning which is right and as it should be. Personally I’d rather they sometimes get it wrong that way round – rather than giving the impresison the air quality is good all over when it isn’t. Many rural parts of the UK still do not have their own air quality monitoring sites so those local councils really do have to rely on the modelling. So isn’t the answer to have a more extensive network for all the pollutants right across the whole UK? Then we shall be more certain about what is coming in from abroad, or likely to be soon, and what is home-grown. And why not show the current (and predicted) levels for each of the various pollutants for the various different parts of the UK on a map each day?In the way that we see the weather reports? Couldn’t the government do this now in 2022? Is the problem that Defra is underfunded?

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