01 Oct 2022
*** This story was published in 2022. New data has been published since then (October 2023). We have carried out the data anaysis - data here - and will update this article when we get time ***
Air pollution costs thousands of lives and billions of pounds every year. It’s one of the UK's biggest killers and is seriously detrimental to our health, from causing lung cancer and worsening asthma symptoms to triggering heart attacks and strokes. Dirty air also creates a massive burden on health services and business – the costs of illness and lost workdays are estimated to add up to £20 billion a year.
Friends of the Earth has used government data to identify those neighbourhoods across England and Wales that are exposed to the worst levels of air pollution – those where background air pollution has double the levels of key pollutants than the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends. We’ve identified how many schools are in these neighbourhoods, as children are particularly susceptible to dirty air, as well as the unfair and disproportionate impact on people of colour and people on low incomes. We’ve also outlined some actions the government and local authorities must take to ensure clean air for all.
The analysis uses 2020 data – the latest data available – which includes COVID-19 lockdown periods, meaning the situation is likely much worse now. The modelling also identifies averages across a neighbourhood, which means there may be locations within the neighbourhood where pollutant levels are higher, such as by busy roads.
What causes air pollution and what harm does it do?
Our research looked at the three most damaging pollutants from a human health perspective – two different sizes of particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Wood burning, industrial processes and road traffic, including non-exhaust emissions, are the major sources of particulates. Road transport is the primary source of NO2, particularly diesel cars.
Particulates – which are tiny particles measuring 10 μm or less (PM10), or even smaller particles measuring 2.5 μm or less (PM2.5) – are known to reduce life expectancy, most likely due to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Particulates also cause lung cancer and may have wider impacts such as dementia. PM2.5 emissions are of particular concern because these particles can enter the bloodstream and be transported around the body, lodging in critical organs. This can seriously impact health, especially in vulnerable groups such as the young, the elderly and those with respiratory problems.
NO2 is a respiratory irritant that can cause inflammation of the airways and lead to coughs, mucus and shortness of breath. Studies have shown that NO2 is associated with reduced lung growth and respiratory infections in early childhood, and affects lung functioning in adulthood.
Air pollution is currently the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with between 28,000 and 36,000 early deaths attributed to long-term exposure each year.
Where is air pollution the worst?
Using the latest government data from 2020 on background air pollution, Friends of the Earth has identified the average annual level of these three air pollutants (PM10, PM2.5 and NO2) in every neighbourhood across England and Wales. From this, we’ve determined the number and location of neighbourhoods that breach WHO guidelines.
We’ve also identified which areas have “very high air pollution” – those with double the level recommended by WHO for at least one of NO2 and PM2.5. There were no neighbourhoods with double the guideline level for PM10. All areas with very high air pollution are in England.
“Neighbourhoods” in this context are Lower Layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs). These are small areas identified by the Office of National Statistics and have an average population of 1,700 people. It should also be noted that 2020 was a year with significant COVID-19 restrictions, so it’s likely our analysis underestimates the severity of the current situation.
Consult our interactive map to see how air pollution fares in your area.
Table 1 below identifies the number of neighbourhoods with very high air pollution grouped by local authority area. Over 90% of these neighbourhoods are in London. This doesn’t mean that other areas don’t have an air pollution problem – 97% of neighbourhoods in England and Wales are above WHO guidelines for PM2.5, and 50% are above guidelines for NO2 – instead, we’re simply highlighting the 2,546 neighbourhoods where air pollution is the worst.
In 8 of London’s local authority areas, all neighbourhoods have very high air pollution. Our research also found that 1,331 neighbourhoods in London have twice the recommended level of both NO2 and PM2.5.
Table 1 – Number and proportion of very high air pollution neighbourhoods grouped by local authority area
See the complete spreadsheet for data on all local authorities.
Air pollution limits
The UK previously derived its air pollution limits from the European Union (EU) – these were transposed into UK law and still apply. In the past, the government has been found guilty in the courts for failing to comply with the current legal limit – measured as an annual average – for NO2 (40 µg/m3). The UK is still failing to meet this limit in 5 of the 43 areas it’s divided into for air quality assessments (UK Air Quality Zones), when all areas should have met this since 2010.
Now we’ve left the EU, the government is setting new legal limits, although only for PM2.5 where it’s proposed an improved limit of 10 µg/m3 by 2040. It’s maintained the legal limits for NO2 and PM10 (both 40 µg/m3). However, WHO’s guidelines are more stringent – since September 2021 it’s recommended an annual average of 5 µg/m3 for PM2.5, 15 µg/m3 for PM10 and 10 µg/m3 for NO2.
Although we view neighbourhoods with double WHO’s guidelines for at least one of these pollutants as having very high air pollution, UK limits are so lax that levels of even more than double WHO’s guidelines would not breach UK law.
Who fares the worst?
Our analysis shows that air pollution disproportionately impacts lower income and more deprived areas, and particularly affects neighbourhoods with higher ethnic minority populations. Half of neighbourhoods that have very high air pollution are in the bottom 30% of the most deprived neighbourhoods. And nearly half (44% to 47%) of the population in neighbourhoods with very high air pollution are people of colour, meaning that people of colour are over 3 times more likely to live in a very highly polluted area than white people.
There’s also a disparity between those producing pollution and those most impacted by it. For example, households in neighbourhoods with very high air pollution are up to 3 times less likely to own a car than those in the least polluted areas.
Approximately 1 million children, of which two-thirds are under 12, live in areas where NO2 is double WHO guidelines. And around 666,000 children, of which 70% are under 12, live in areas where PM2.5 is double the recommended level. There are 1,737 schools in these neighbourhoods, listed in this spreadsheet.
See Tables 2-5 below for more details.
Table 2 – Neighbourhoods and PM2.5
Table 3 – Neighbourhoods and NO2
Table 4 – Neighbourhoods and NO2 and/or PM2.5
We’ve identified neighbourhoods where the average annual concentrations of either NO2 or PM2.5 (or both) are double WHO guidelines.
Table 5 – Neighbourhoods and PM10
It should be noted that no neighbourhoods have average annual concentrations of PM10 that are double WHO guidelines.
What are the solutions?
Action is needed from every tier of government to tackle the sources of all key pollutants – not just to comply with current UK requirements on air pollution, but also to achieve WHO guidelines as soon as possible.
- Under the Environment Act, the government must lay before parliament two new legal targets for air pollution by 31 October 2022. Friends of the Earth and others are calling for a target of 10 µg/m3 for PM2.5 by 2030, and the more stringent WHO limit of 5 µg/m3 as soon as possible after that.
- More must be done on transport, including setting targets to cut vehicle use. Research shows that car traffic must be cut by at least 20% by 2030 to reach carbon targets, and this would also significantly reduce air pollution. Research for Friends of the Earth outlines how to cut car use significantly.
- To date the government has largely been relying on electric vehicles to improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions, but these still produce particulate air pollution from brake, tyre and road wear (see Figure 3 in this government report). Reducing traffic and encouraging cycling and walking need much stronger emphasis and funding if climate and air pollution goals are to be met.
- The government must also halt its massive road building plans, as new roads generate more traffic and more air pollution.
- In Wales, the government is introducing a new Clean Air Bill, a move welcomed by Friends of the Earth Cymru. Friends of the Earth has shared recommendations on what the Bill should contain as well as other actions the Welsh government should take.
- In England, local authorities have an important role, for example through setting up Clean Air Zones to restrict the dirtiest vehicles in areas of high air pollution, constraining traffic near schools, and providing alternatives to car use such as better buses and segregated cycleways. However, councils are also constrained by poor levels of funding and expertise gaps. Friends of the Earth is campaigning alongside organisations within the Blueprint Coalition for councils to be given more powers and resources.
- Other sources of air pollution must also be tackled, for example via measures that constrain domestic wood burning.
Given its serious health and societal ramifications, tackling air pollution must be a priority for the government and local authorities. The unfair and disproportionate impacts of air pollution need to be urgently addressed, and all neighbourhoods should enjoy the benefits of clean and healthy air.