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What is the problem with air pollution?

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What is the problem with air pollution?

Some may recall the great smogs of the 1950s which resulted in thousands of premature deaths. These pollutant laden fogs were a product of huge quantities of coal being burned for both domestic and industrial use and thankfully are a thing of the past. Since then improved legislation and tougher air quality targets have reduced such pollution episodes.

Nowadays much of our outdoor pollution is a result of combustion of fossil fuels to generate power and heat and to power vehicles. Combustion results in gases such as Nitrogen Oxides, Nitrogen Dioxide and particulates. These gases may also react with other gases in the air to form secondary pollutants such as Ozone. Good air quality is essential for our health, quality of life and the environment. Air becomes polluted when it contains substances which can have a harmful effect on the health of people, animals and vegetation.

A variety of air pollutants have known or suspected harmful effects on human health and the environment. The main causes of air pollution include transport, domestic combustion and industrial processes. Pollutants from these sources can cause problems in the immediate vicinity and a distance away.

In the winter months smogs are formed due to temperature inversion weather conditions. Across the South of England, photochemical summer smogs occur resulting in high concentrations of low-level (tropospheric) ozone.

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Health effects

Generally speaking, if you are young and/or in good health, moderate air pollution levels are unlikely to have serious short term health effects. However, elevated levels and/or long term exposure to poor air quality can lead to more serious symptoms and conditions affecting human health, particularly in people with pre-existing heart or respiratory conditions, such as emphysema and asthma.

The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) estimated that long term exposure to air pollution had an effect equivalent to 29,000 deaths a year in the UK in 2008.

Public Health England (PHE) published a report in 2014 estimating the number of deaths in UK local authority areas that can be attributed to long term exposure to particulate air pollution for 2010. It estimates mortality in each area, derived by modelling annual average concentrations of man-made particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter, known as PM2.5 and their impacts on health. The estimates are made for long term exposure to particulate air pollution (ie over many years) rather than short term exposure to high pollution episodes and relate to over 25s.

In summary the figures for the local area are:

  • in Adur 5.1% (335 years of life lost)
  • in Worthing 5.0% (577 years of life lost)
  • the England average is 5.6%
  • South East 5.5%

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