Air pollution in the United Kingdom has long been considered a significant health issue. Think back to the Great Smog of London, in 1952, which was a severe air pollution event that affected London, in early December that year. A period of unusually cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants—mostly arising from the use of coal—to form a thick layer of smog over the city that lasted for 5 days.
The Great Smog caused major disruption by reducing visibility and even penetrating indoor areas, far more severely than previous smog events, called “pea-soupers”. Government reports estimated that up to 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog and 100,000 more were made ill by the smog’s effects. More recent research suggests that the total number of fatalities may have been considerably greater, with estimates of between 10,000 and 12,000 deaths.
Many areas, including major cities like London, are found to be significantly and regularly above legal and recommended levels. Air pollution in the UK is a major cause of diseases such as asthma, lung disease, stroke, and heart disease (or can exacerbate symptoms in those suffering from these conditions), and is estimated to cause 40,000 premature deaths each year (about 8.3% of deaths), while costing around £40 billion each year. In December 2020 Southwark Coroner’s Court in London made legal history by recording a finding that air pollution “made a material contribution” to the death of a nine-year-old girl in 2013, following an asthma attack.
Air pollution is monitored and regulated. Air quality targets for particulates, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, set by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), are mostly aimed at local government representatives responsible for the management of air quality in cities, where air quality management is the most urgent. In 2017, research by the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change and the Royal College of Physicians revealed that air pollution levels in 44 cities in the UK are above the recommended World Health Organisation guidelines.
Air pollution has a variety of causes, from the obvious, such as road, airm(non electric) rail traffic and industry, through to heating and electricity generation. The four main pollutant emissions from diesel engines are carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC), particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Even shipping produces polluting emissions and there are steps being taken to hook ships up to the electricity network when in port, rather than running their oil engines to provide dockside power.
If you want to understand the problem in greater detail, visit the UK Air Information Resource where a number of reports are available for download.