Air pollution is a mixture of particles and gases that have various sources such as road transport, industry, agriculture and domestic fires. According to the Task Force for the Forum for International Cooperation on Air Pollution (FICAP – made up of air quality experts and delegates around the world), air pollution continues to present the greatest environmental risk to human health.
The quality of the air we breathe should be of great concern to everyone. We may not always see air pollution but it is present everywhere, every day, and can have a considerable effect on our health and that of our planet.
Air pollution is a major public health risk, ranking alongside cancer, heart disease and obesity. It is estimated that the mortality rate in Bromley is 6% from air pollution alone. It also comes at great cost to our economies; Public Health England has estimated that the costs of air pollution to health and social care services could reach tens of billions of pounds by 2035.
Our government and businesses have an important role to play in improving air quality, and we are fortunate that the UK is at the forefront of this improvement as a founding member of the UNECE Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP, established in 1979). But it is vitally important that we continue to take action as individuals, families and community groups, in order to reduce dangerous levels of air pollution and save lives.
There are so many simple ways we can work to reduce our own emissions. Adopting active travel is a great way to become more active and to benefit your community by using your car less, particularly for local journeys.
Burning domestic waste
Burning waste outdoors is a huge contributor to spikes in air pollution in communities. Burning commercial or building waste in particular can release harmful carcinogens into the air, as well as causing a nuisance to neighbours. In many areas there are no restrictions on garden bonfires, but it is so important to limit what you burn to green waste only; all commercial and non-organic waste should be disposed of properly and according to manufacturers’ instructions. Burning controlled waste (treated wood such as fence panels or furniture) is an offence under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
Anti-idling campaigns have become more prevalent in recent years, particularly in school communities. But what is the real cost of idling your car engine? Every minute, an idling car can fill up to 150 balloons with harmful emissions, which is up to twice as many as those released by a vehicle in motion. In some local authorities you can also be issued a fixed penalty notice for leaving your car idling while stationary.
Most drivers idle because they don’t think they are doing anything wrong, are waiting to pick someone up or are running the heating and cooling. Hot spots for idling are schools, railway/underground stations, supermarkets/retail/shopping centres, bus stations, taxi ranks, and hospitals. So when your handbrake goes on, the engine goes off.
In 2020 research conducted by the RAC found that 26% of those caught idling were doing so while waiting outside a school. The potential spike in air pollution that could result in school areas is a huge cause for concern.
As well as turning off your engine, there are other ways you can support your community by getting involved in local anti-idling campaigns, and helping schools set up Clean Air Zones in their area.
Wood-burning stoves and fireplaces
Burning materials at home releases fine particulate matter into the air in smoke, which can cause lung damage and other health issues. If you have a wood-burning stove or open fire in your home, there are ways you can reduce the harmful impact by making small changes. For example, wood that is wet when burned will produce significantly more smoke and pollution, and burn less efficiently for heating your home. When buying solid fuels to burn, you should look for the ‘Ready to Burn’ logo. This means that wood will have a moisture content of 20% or less, and that the fuel meets sulphur and smoke emission limits. These measures will also help to heat your home more efficiently, enabling you to use less fuel to produce more heat.
Some parts of England are designated ‘smoke control’ areas, which have additional regulations to domestic burning. You should always contact your local authority to confirm if you live in one of these areas, as it can be an offence to release smoke from chimneys.
Useful links and further reading
- Burning domestic waste
- Tips for burning better
- DEFRA’s library of articles and reports on air quality
- Smoke control area map (note this is indicative of smoke control areas and you should always confirm with your local council)
- Anti-idling information: