The Facts

Air pollution, carbon emissions and our health


What is air pollution?

Air pollution includes gases and solid particles in the air. The air pollution that most affects our health in Europe is nitrogen dioxide (NOx) and Particulate Matter (called PM2.5 and PM10).


Why is it a problem?

Air pollution leads to many health problems and is linked to 4.2 million premature deaths each year – that’s 1 in 8 deaths. It affects three core areas of the body: lungs, heart, and brain. Heart attacks, stroke and lung disease are among the health impacts of air pollution.

Children can suffer from reduced lung development if they live or go to school in areas with higher air pollution. Air pollution is also linked to reduced brain development in small children. Some of the same health problems will be felt by animals like our pets too.

Air pollution affects plant and tree growth. Nitrogen dioxide is linked to acid rain which damages plants, trees and buildings. Buildings in polluted areas can also end up with more black soot on them, meaning we have to clean our windows more often.


What causes air pollution?

Across Europe, traffic is a major cause of air pollution, especially NOx. This comes from diesel and petrol engines, with diesels being worse. Even though bigger vehicles (e.g. buses and lorries) produce slightly more of the gas, when you have lots of cars on the road this can cause a bigger proportion of the air pollution.

Particulate matter is also emitted by traffic – some coming out of the engine, but also from the friction of tyres on the road and from braking.

Pollutants also come from home heating, including wood burning stoves and fireplaces and some types of industry. Wood burners are fast becoming the biggest contributors to PM in many European countries as registrations continue to increase.


Why is it worse in some areas?

Air pollution is caused by a combination of factors. The first is how much air pollution is being emitted: the number of vehicles on the road, or number of fires nearby, etc. However, the level of air pollution can also depend on how much the air is circulated or where the wind carries it. So higher, windier places will tend to have less pollution, but low-lying places, or narrow roads with very tall buildings may have worse pollution. As a rule of thumb, if you can see lots of vehicles or home heating smoke then the air inside the cars and on the pavement is probably not great.

In Europe, we only rarely have extremely high levels of air pollution, but this is common in other countries especially in China and India. However, we are not perfect either. Even though our levels might not get as high as levels in some cities, we have chronic low level pollution in many European cities and towns which can lead to long term health impacts, causing people to suffer more illnesses and die earlier. Currently, most cities in Europe  are breaking the law because we pollute too much.


How can we protect ourselves?

Here are just a few ideas. Work with your community, colleagues or students come up with your own suggestions.

Reduce the causes</strong
How can we use cars less? Can we walk, cycle, bus or scoot around and play in places nearby so we don’t need to use cars as much? Could your school run a “No Idling” campaign for drop-off times? Insulate you home so you don’t need to heat is as much and chose healthier fuels.

Avoid busy roads
Walking on smaller, quieter roads or through parks will significantly reduce the amount of pollutants you breathe in.

Stop idling and drive carefully
Even inside a car, you are still breathing in polluted air. In other words, you are no less protected than if you were walking or cycling. By switching off the engine when possible and avoiding strong acceleration and braking, you are reducing the amount of air pollution you are creating.

Encourage cleaner fuels
Spread awareness of the problem of wood burners and fireplaces and the benefits of switching to cleaner fuels. Switch to cleaner solid fuels or ‘green’ electricity tariffs where possible.

Hang on, what about carbon emissions?

For many people living in European cities, climate change doesn’t appear to impact them. They might think our house isn’t burning yet.

Carbon Dioxide (CO₂) is the most common greenhouse gas, so called as they trap heat in the planet, warming it like a greenhouse! This heating is leading to biodiversity decline, sea level rise and extreme weather, like droughts and heatwaves. These changes are causing crops to fail, increasing the likelihood of forest fires, and damaging our homes and livelihoods.

Air pollution differs from greenhouse gas emissions in that it consists of short-term pollutants that persist for just a few weeks. However, its sources are the same. For example, the transport sector is the fastest growing contributor to emissions and accounts for almost 25% of all CO₂ emissions (a long-lived pollutant). It is also a significant contributor to air pollution, particularly in cities, through the production of short-lived NOx and PM10, such as black carbon, or soot.

Despite being short-lived, black carbon is the second highest contributor to global heating, after CO₂. Diesel transport (along with household wood burners) is one of the world’s major sources of black carbon.

Both issues interrelate. Ground-level ozone pollution, produced when fossil fuel pollutants react with ultraviolet light, is on the rise and will worsen as temperatures rise with climate change.

As air pollution is localised and immediate it overcomes the disconnect people may feel towards climate change. Thus, focusing campaigns on air pollution reduction could do more to tackle climate change than climate change campaigning in and of itself.

Now you know the facts…

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