Air quality: interactive map reveals 100 UK areas with dangerous pollution levels as lung charity warns of dirty air crisis

The World Health Organisation says there is no truly safe level of pollution exposure – but many places in the UK have potentially deadly levels

More than 100 councils have air dirtier than a 'safe' level set by WHO
More than 100 councils have air dirtier than a 'safe' level set by WHO

People living in more than 100 UK council areas are breathing dirty air that breaches a ‘safe’ limit for pollution set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – above which increased deaths are likely.

As the British Lung Foundation promotes Love Your Lungs Week (21 - 27 June), the charity is warning that the nation is facing a “health emergency” with lethal levels of air pollution.

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NationalWorld has analysed Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) data to see which parts of the country have the worst air quality.

The figures reveal that 21.8 million people – one in three people in the UK – are living in areas with dangerously high levels of pollution, which the British Lung Foundation says can cause cancer, strokes and cardio-vascular diseases.

Our interactive map reveals which parts of the country have the worst air quality.

NationalWorld has previously revealed that one in 20 deaths in England are attributable to air pollution, with people in some parts of the country up to three times more likely to die from dirty air than others.

What is air pollution?

There are many types of air pollution, much of it harmful to the environment as well as to human health.

DEFRA’s figures measure the concentration of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, which the British Lung Foundation says is one of the two pollutants it is most concerned by, along with nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

PM2.5 is solid or liquid particles with a diameter at least 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. It can be naturally occurring, such as from sea spray or dust storms, or man made, from soot caused by burning fuels for transport, industry and heating.

Long-term exposure can cause chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as lung cancer. It can also exacerbate existing conditions.

Where has the worst PM2.5 pollution?

The World Health Organisation sets a limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre as a ‘safe’ limit for average annual PM2.5 levels.

But DEFRA’s figures reveal 106 council areas in the UK had an average annual concentration of 10 or more micrograms per cubic metre in 2019.

Unsurprisingly, London comes off worst – of the 25 UK councils with the highest average annual pollution, 23 are in London, with Dartford in Kent and Slough in Berkshire joining them in the 23rd and 25th spots respectively.

Worst of the pack is Newham in East London, where a coroner made history last December by declaring air pollution had caused the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah.

The schoolgirl died of acute respiratory failure, severe asthma and exposure to air pollution in excess of World Health Organisation guidelines, caused by traffic emissions.

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These are the 10 UK areas with the worst air quality

In Newham PM2.5 levels reached an average of 13 micrograms per cubic metre in 2019. Of this, 95.6% came from man-made sources.

This was followed by the City of London and Waltham Forest, both on 12.8, Westminster on 12.7, and Barkingham and Dagenham, Kensington and Chelsea, Hackney and Islington on 12.6.

Newham Council’s clean air strategy notes the main source of PM2.5 pollution is traffic – the borough is bordered by the busy North Circular road and experiences high levels of through traffic from people travelling into London.

Housing in the densely populated borough – which is also home to London City Airport – is often adjacent to these busy roads.

And as is the case across the wider south of England, the area is impacted by pollution that blows across from Europe.

In the South East region, Slough was the worst area of the bunch, with 11.7 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre.

In the East of England the worst affected region was Luton (11.5) and in the South West it was Gloucester (9.6).

Up in the midlands regions, worst in the west was Sandwell, near Birmingham, (11.2) while in the east it was Leicester (10.7).

For the two northern regions of England, it was Manchester in the west (9.7) and in the east it was Middlesborough (8.1).

Edinburgh was the worst affected area of Scotland (6.4) and Cardiff was worst hit in Wales (8.9).

In Northern Ireland, Belfast had an average of 7.9 micrograms, which was the highest in the country.

What is a safe level of PM2.5?

While WHO sets its ‘safe’ limit at 10 micrograms, it acknowledges there is no actual safe level of exposure to PM2.5.

Excess deaths become likely after 10 micrograms, it says.

EU law however – which the UK enshrined in domestic legislation while a member state – allows PM2.5 levels up to 25 micrograms per cubic metre.

Former Environment Secretary Michael Gove had promised that the impending Environment Bill – currently being scrutinised by the House of Lords as it makes its way through Parliament – would include “a legally binding commitment on particulate matter so that no part of the country exceeds the levels recommended by the WHO”.

But the Bill does not contain this commitment. Instead, it places a duty on government to set at least two air quality targets by October 2022, with a vague ambition to reduce the annual average level of PM2.5.

The British Lung Foundation called the move “unacceptable” and said lives would continue to be lost as a result.

What else did it say?

Zak Bond, air quality policy officer at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation said: “We urgently need ambitious new laws to reduce harmful levels of air pollution, in line with World Health Organization guidelines, in order to help prevent tens of thousands of early deaths each year.

“Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to human health and right across the UK, millions of people are living in areas where the air is unsafe to breathe.

“The Government has the opportunity to set world-leading air quality laws within the Environment Bill now, but instead they are choosing to delay the process further until October 2022.”

A DEFRA spokesperson said that air pollution had reduced significantly since 2010, with emissions of fine particulate matter down 11%.

“However, we know there is more to do,” they said.

“We are continuing to deliver a £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution and are going further with new targets to protect communities from air pollution, particularly PM2.5 which is especially harmful to human health.”

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