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Air pollution is not just a summer problem

A few of us may remember the big smogs of the 1950s but of course, since then a greater understanding of the causes and the threat to health has resulted in much cleaner air.

But as our population increases, as more and more cars take to the roads and other problems, once again air pollution is becoming a talked about health threat.

This week there are reports that new schools, care homes and hospitals should be built well away from major roads because of the risk of air pollution. The Environmental Audit Committee is also arguing that air pollution is now a public health crisis causing nearly as many deaths as smoking.

The BBC has also reported on this saying Joan Walley, the Environmental Audit Committee Chairwoman, has said there is a public health crisis in terms of poor air quality.

Evidently there are around 29,000 deaths annual in the UK from air pollution, and inevitably the majority are among the older age groups who are more susceptible to problems caused by bad air.

The big problem with air pollution is that a lot of it is invisible but just because you can’t see the dangerous particles in the air, it doesn’t mean the air is clean.

Invisible gasses such as nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone can irritate the airways of the lungs. Carbon monoxide is another invisible but dangerous gas that prevents the uptake of oxygen in the blood. The exhaust from vehicles is a major source of carbon monoxide.

Then there are small almost invisible fine particles in the air including mineral dusts or carbon which can be carried deep into the lungs where they can cause inflammation and are also associated with heart and lung diseases and cancer.  Ammonia – that gas with a bad egg smell – is bad enough when you encounter it, but in the atmosphere is can react with oxides of nitrogen and sulphur to form damaging secondary particles.

In the summer air pollution can be worse because the heat and sunlight can cook the air along with all the chemical compounds in it creating a toxic chemical soup. But still conditions and weather “inversions” can also enhance pollution and these can occur at any time of year including mid winter.

Air pollution is something that everyone over 50 should be aware of.  There are EU Limits with parameters that should not be exceeded, but this is a very complex area and clearly, according to recent reports, does not ensure our air quality is totally safe.

A good source of information on air quality is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA): defra.gov.uk/air-pollution

They give warnings under various categories based on the following:

Air Pollution Banding

Value

Accompanying health messages for at-risk individuals*

Accompanying health messages for the general population

Low

1-3

Enjoy your usual outdoor activities.

Enjoy your usual outdoor activities.

Moderate

4-6

Adults and children with lung problems, and adults with heart problems, who experience symptoms, should consider reducing strenuous physical activity, particularly outdoors.

Enjoy your usual outdoor activities.

High

7-9

Adults and children with lung problems, and adults with heart problems, should reduce strenuous physical exertion, particularly outdoors, and particularly if they experience symptoms. People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more often. Older people should also reduce physical exertion.

Anyone experiencing discomfort such as sore eyes, cough or sore throat should consider reducing activity, particularly outdoors.

Very High

10

Adults and children with lung problems, adults with heart problems, and older people, should avoid strenuous physical activity. People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more often.

Reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as cough or sore throat.

On their webpage http://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/forecasting/ they give an updated measurement for all areas of the UK and it would be well worth taking a note of this. The forecasts are not always predicatable. For instance, today’s reports includes:

Air pollution levels are forecast to remain Low for the majority of the UK. Moderate pollution levels are forecast for the Shetland Islands on Wednesday and Thursday.

Most people would assume that the Shetlands, surrounded by water and away from major traffic congestions, would be one of the healthiest areas in the UK; but clearly this week anyway this is not the case.

With governmental and health authorities now voicing their concerns over growing air pollution, it is something we need to be more aware of than in the past. Let’s hope we don’t end up having to wear the white face masks that are common in other countries around the world.


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