Air Pollution and Health

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What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is the name for different types of pollution that are in the air which can cause harm if you breathe them in. These include:

  • gases such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide
  • particulate matter (PM), made up of solid and liquid particles such as soot and dust
  • chemicals such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s)
  • moulds

Polluted air can come from several sources, such as domestic wood burning and cars, particularly diesel exhaust fumes, as well as industry. 

The main air pollutants in Ipswich are nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5)

Who is affected by air pollution?

Air pollution affects the health of everyone. Exposure to air pollution has various different health effects, which come about at every stage of life. However, these effects disproportionately impact the most vulnerable in our society: young people, older people, and people experiencing illness and poverty. It is particularly harmful for people with existing health conditions. The health effects of air pollution are complex, and range in severity of impact. In some cases, damage can be gradual and may not become apparent for many years.

Graphic about the stages of air pollution

(Reference: Public Health England- Health Matters: air pollution, 2018)

How does air pollution affect my health?

We can’t always see it, but air pollution affects everyone and is the largest environmental risk to our health. 

When we breathe polluted air we inhale a complex mix of gases and particles. These particles can stick in our throat and our lungs. Smaller particles can pass into our blood and be transported around the body into many different organs.

Scientists are still discovering new ways in which polluted air affects our health – but a number of health effects are already clear. Research has shown that air pollution can:

  • Cause or worsen a range of lung and heart conditions including: asthma, chronic bronchitis, chronic heart disease (CHD), and stroke.
  • Cause low birth weight and hinder development of lung function in children.
  • Damage the inside walls of your blood vessels, causing them to become narrower and harder.
  • Restrict the movement of your blood vessels, which can increase your blood pressure and add to the strain on your heart.
  • Affect the normal electrical functioning of your heart which could cause abnormal heart rhythms 
  • Over the longer term, exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of lung cancer.

It’s estimated that long-term exposure to poor air quality is responsible for up to 36,000 deaths per year in the UK[1]. The majority of UK deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution are from heart disease and stroke.

How can I reduce my exposure to air pollution?

By taking a few simple steps where possible, you can minimise your exposure to air pollution and protect you and your family. For example, you could:

  1. Take steps to reduce your contribution to air pollution. Find out more at ‘What can I do to help reduce air pollution’. 
  2. Avoid travelling on busy and congested roads, if possible. These are pollution hotspots. 
  3. Avoid travelling during rush hour, if possible. When traffic is busiest, roadside air pollution will be at its worst. 
  4. Walk, cycle or scoot whenever you can, rather than driving. Being stuck in traffic can expose you to lots of pollution. Polluted air from the exhaust of the vehicles in front can get sucked into your car, and often stays trapped there, meaning you might breathe in more of the pollution. Research commissioned by Global Action Plan (GAP) and the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change found that a car driver was exposed to twice as much pollution as a pedestrian and nine times as much pollution as a cyclist travelling the same journey at the same time.
  5. Stop idling. It’s better to turn off your engine if you think that your vehicle will be stationary for around two minutes or longer.
  6. Choose to walk alongside the least polluted side of the road. Pollution levels can change over very short distances. On a normal road, the side of the road with less traffic will typically be less polluted. On a hill, the uphill side of the road will typically be more polluted as engines must work harder to drive uphill. 
  7. Take steps to mitigate the pollution of your open fire or wood-burning stove. The government has produced a practical guide with simple steps to reduce the environmental and health impacts of wood burning. You can also find out more at ‘Domestic Burning’ 
  8. Eat at healthy, balanced diet. Some research has suggested that eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables could help protect you from the negative impacts of air pollution.
  9. Keep your kitchen smoke free. When you are cooking, try to keep lids on pots whenever you can. This will reduce the amount of energy needed to cook and reduce the amount of pollution from your hob. It will also reduce the amount of moisture getting into the air, which can help to avoid mould and condensation.
  10. Open windows when you can. Opening windows when you are cooking or cleaning can be a very good way to stop air pollution building up inside your house. It allows fresh air in and stops the concentration of pollution from getting too high. Sometimes, if your home is near a busy road, air pollution from traffic can get into your house from the outside. If you are worried about the levels of pollution near your home, think about which windows you open, and try to open those that are furthest away from the roads rather than those that are closest to the roads. Try to close your windows during rush hour when the outdoor air pollution is at its worst. To help prevent mould use trickle vents (found on some windows) and extractor fans or open the window (if possible and safe). You can help avoid moisture by drying clothes outdoors, repairing water leaks/damage and using extractor fans or opening windows (if possible and safe), when bathing and showering.
  11. Choose low-chemical cleaning, DIY and personal care products. Try to choose fragrance free cleaning products and avoid using too much. Always read product labels and follow the manufacturer’s recommended quantities and instructions for use. When you are planning to decorate your house, choose paints which have a “low VOC” label on them and if possible store them outside of the house, such as in a garage or shed.

Is it safe to exercise outside in polluted air?

Being physically active is very good for your heart and circulatory system, and for most people the benefits of being physically active outweigh the risks of breathing in polluted air.

But if you have a heart or circulatory condition, or long-term lung disease, the British Heart Foundation advise that you should reduce the amount of exercise you do outdoors if the air pollution level is moderate, high or very high.

This is because your body needs to take in more air when you are physically active and your heart is working harder, so you’re likely to breathe in more polluted air.

Will a face mask protect me against air pollution?

No. Public Health England does not recommend wearing masks as a method of reducing your exposure to air pollution in the UK.

Many of the face masks on the market don’t stop you from breathing in the smallest particles of air pollution. For them to work, face masks need to fit very snugly, and have very effective filters.

However, there are simple steps you can take to minimise your exposure to air pollution and protect you and your family. But the best way to protect the health of everyone in Ipswich is to work together to tackle air pollution.

Will my car filters protect me against air pollution?

Not fully. Whilst car filters will partially protect you from some air pollutants such as particulate matter, they probably don’t remove other types of air pollution including nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Being on the road means that your vehicle will be surrounded by emissions from your own and other vehicles. In fact, evidence shows that cyclists and pedestrians just metres away are often less exposed to air pollution than people in nearby cars, taxis and buses.

[1] Public Health England, 2019, Review of interventions to improve outdoor air quality and public health

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Environmental Health,
Ipswich Borough Council,
3W Grafton House,
15-17 Russell Road,