Current high UK air pollution ‘nothing exceptional’

Air quality experts say Defra needs new air quality strategy and that current air pollution episode is not unusual for UK

The High level of dust and air pollution currently being seen across much of England and Wales is ‘nothing exceptional’ for the UK, according to air quality experts.

On Monday Defra took over the online five-day forecasting of air pollution from the Met Office, and levels were expected to reach as high as 10 — the top of the scale — in various parts of the UK over the next few days (see story).

The Thames estuary seen from above: air pollution in many parts of the UK have been forecast to reach very high levels this week

The Thames estuary seen from above: air pollution in many parts of the UK have been forecast to reach very high levels this week

But while the issue has been reported widely in the media — partly due to dust, thought to have blown over from the Sahara, being visible on surfaces such as cars and windows — experts say current levels are similar to those often seen several times a year in the UK.

Air consultant Roger Barrowcliffe, chair of the Institute of Air Quality Management (IAQM) — a membership organisation for air quality professionals — said: “I don’t think there is anything unusual in this instance in terms of the levels or the physiological aspects.”

He told that he hoped the issue would raise awareness about air pollution, but that it was “disappointingly rare” to see stories on the issue in the mainstream media.

Mr Barrowcliffe said: “It is interesting because if you actually look at the numbers that are currently being recorded they are not actually that high. I don’t think the measurements we are seeing at the moment would be regarded as particularly alarming, at least when looking at levels over the course of the rest of the year.”

But, he that while air quality was an international as well as national issue, Defra could still do more to tackle pollution. Earlier today, Defra said it was ‘investing heavily’ in initiatives to tackle pollution (see story).

Mr Barrowcliffe said: “The clear position of IAQM is that Defra should produce a new Air Quality Strategy. The last one they produced was in 2007 and that particular revision was not a great step forward in comparison to previous strategies.

While he said Defra minister Dan Rogerson held a roundtable discussion with air quality experts last week, Mr Barrowcliffe said he thought air quality issues were generally not high enough on the agenda across government as a whole and that, with stretched resources, there was a reluctance to produce long strategy documents.

But, he said: “We think that unless Defra really thinks about what it is doing it is going to struggle to come forward with effective policy on air quality.”

Mr Barrowcliffe said he thought that rain and weather conditions forecast for tomorrow would see the high air pollution levels subside.

King’s College London

Also speaking to, King’s College London (KCL)’s Timothy Baker — who works on the College’s air monitoring team — agreed that Saharan dust and other factors had pushed this particular incidence of air pollution higher up the media agenda.

He said: “There is nothing particularly exceptional about the pollution levels we are seeing at the moment. We are looking at what is actually happening using our monitoring system on an hour by hour basis and the pollution levels haven’t actually been as high as some of the levels we saw last month, for instance.”

Although not as widespread, heightened levels of air pollution were also recorded in mid-March in some parts of the South East England and London.

Asked whether the issue needed tackling at a local, national or international level, Mr Baker said: “I think it is a perfect example of where everybody has to work on the issue because what we are seeing is a make-up of pollution from Europe and we are also adding our own pollution to the mix. Air pollution is something that has no respect of boundaries.”

With regards to avoiding air pollution on a personal level, Mr Baker said that trials carried out by KCL scientists found that simply walking down a side street instead of along a busy main road can reduce pollution exposure by up to 50%.

He said: “For many of the pollutants there is no minimum threshold of exposure with regards to health, but many things can be done to impact on how much pollution you are exposed to.”

He added: “So while the actual pollution levels are not exceptional, I think the public awareness of air quality that comes out of this will be beneficial in helping people to reduce their exposure.”


Labour London Assembly member Murad Qureshi

Labour London Assembly member Murad Qureshi

In London, an estimated 4,000 deaths each year are attributable to air pollution, and the Mayor, Boris Johnson, is currently asking Londoners for their views on air quality as part of a consultation which closes on April 13 2014 (see

Assembly Member Murad Qureshi today criticised the Mayor for “failing to act on the city’s silent killer”.

He said that the Mayor had prioritised purchasing hundreds of new RouteMaster buses instead of retrofitting the exhaust systems of the entire fleet of the capital’s 8,000 buses to reduce pollution.

According to Mr Qureshi, a plan was put forward for a £25 million fund to finance a retrofitting programme, which would have been completed by December 2015, but this was rejected by Mr Johnson.

Mr Qureshi said: “This latest smog episode should act as a wake-up call to our Mayor, whilst sand blown in from the Sahara is a contributing factor, the fact is Boris has not taken decisive action to tackle local air pollution. In the last six years he has prioritised cars over public transport, and where he has invested he has wasted money on his new RouteMaster instead of cleaning up the entire bus fleet.

“A major factor contributing to London’s air pollution is particulate matter from diesel engines. Boris needs to take action and show real leadership on this issue, that is what Mayors are there for. He needs to play his part in tackling our city’s silent killer which causes over 4,000 deaths a year. He should bring forward his Ultra Low Emission Zone and retro-fit the entire London bus fleet to make them less polluting.”


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