Air pollution and you

What is air pollution?

You can’t always see it, but air pollution is all around us. It comes from many sources and can be very damaging to our health.

We can breathe harmful gases and tiny particles deep into our lungs. Some of the smallest particles may also pass into our bloodstreams.

By learning more about air pollution you can help tackle it and protect your health.

Types and sources of air pollution

Below are the main types of outdoor air pollution found in Greater Manchester.

Nitrogen dioxide is a gas which is a major pollutant in towns and cities and is the main type of air pollution being tackled by the Greater Manchester Clean Air Plan proposals. It’s caused by burning fossil fuels in diesel and petrol engines, power stations, industry, cooking and heating.

‘Good’ ozone in the stratosphere shields us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. But at ground level, ozone is a harmful pollutant and one of the main ingredients of smog.

It’s created when pollutants from cars and industrial combustion (like power stations, chemical plants and factories) react chemically in the presence of sunlight. This means that unhealthy levels are more likely to happen on hot, sunny days. Ozone can be carried a long way by wind so can affect rural as well as urban areas.

Particulate matter (PM) is a mixture of solids and liquids suspended in the air. It varies in size, with some particles such as dust, smoke and soot large enough to be seen by the eye.

The most dangerous to health are PM10 and PM2.5 fine particles – both smaller than the width of a human hair. Normally PM10 and PM2.5 are too small to see but on days with very high pollution levels they can mix with other air pollution and appear as smog or haze.

The main sources of particulate pollution are domestic wood and coal fires and stoves, vehicle exhaust fumes, brake and tyre dust, industry and construction.

Sulphur dioxide is a colourless gas with a strong smell. The main source of sulphur dioxide pollution in the UK is power stations burning fossil fuels such as coal and heavy oils. Petrol refineries, vehicle engines and home coal fires and stoves also produce this pollutant.

Mythbusting

Not necessarily true. The air you breathe inside your car can be worse than the air outside. Your vehicle is surrounded by exhaust fumes from traffic, which you can breathe in as air filters don’t always remove all of the pollution from the air they circulate.

Cycling and walking is better for your health and fitness, and you could be less exposed to air pollution than drivers because even being a short distance away from traffic makes a difference. You can reduce your exposure by sticking to quieter roads away from heavy traffic. If we all cycle and walk more and drive less, we can help reduce congestion and pollution.

At the moment there isn’t strong evidence that using face masks or respirators routinely will reduce your exposure to air pollution. Masks need to fit very snugly to work – and need to have very effective filters. Many of the face masks on the market don’t stop you from breathing in the smallest particles. However, you may wish to consider wearing a face covering to help reduce the spread of coronavirus.

You’re better off cycling or walking on quiet routes away from polluting traffic. You can see the latest forecast for air quality in Greater Manchester on our Forecast and alerts page. There you can also sign up to receive an Air Alerts email, text or recorded phone message whenever air pollution is forecast to be 'moderate' or worse. The forecasting system is based on the national Daily Air Quality Index, which gives recommended actions and health advice for when air quality is poor. If you have a health condition that is made worse by air pollution, continue to follow your usual medical advice.

Sometimes you can see or smell air pollution, like smog and exhaust fumes. But some of the air pollutants which are most damaging to health aren’t always visible and come from many different sources. Air pollution is a complex mix of particles and gases from both natural and man-made sources. Particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) are both major components of urban air pollution. Any amount of pollution can be damaging to our health.

We can all do a lot to help clean up the air we breathe. Many simple changes to our everyday routine can combine to make a real difference to air pollution levels. Walking or cycling makes a difference, as it reduces the number of cars on the road. If you need to drive, you can still reduce the impact of your journey.

Think about the way you travel, the type of vehicle you use, how often you drive, and the way you drive. (See our Top Tips for drivers). Even the way we get our online shopping delivered to us can be a big influence on how many polluting delivery vehicles drive down our roads each day.

It’s easy to think that air pollution is only a concern in big cities like Delhi or Beijing. But towns and cities across the UK have a problem with air quality too and road transport is a major source.

Air pollution in Greater Manchester affects the health of our communities and contributes to at least 1,200 early deaths in our region alone each year.

The government has instructed Greater Manchester and many other areas to develop Clean Air Plans to bring levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) on local roads within legal limits as soon as possible.

Air pollution harms our health at every stage of life and is even linked to early deaths. And no one is safe from it.

Children can be affected as their organs and immune systems are still developing, while older people, and people with existing health conditions, are particularly vulnerable. But adults in good general health can also develop health conditions from continued exposure to dirty air.

Your health

Dirty air makes a major contribution to ill health and early death in our communities. In towns and cities, road vehicles are the main source of air pollution. But we can be affected by poor indoor air quality too.

Everyone is at risk. Air pollution harms our health at every stage of life – in fact, the effects can start as early a baby’s first few weeks in the womb.

The most vulnerable people in society are hit hardest – children, older people and those already in poor health.

Potential links between coronavirus cases and poor air quality are being investigated, but people who are already at a higher risk from the worst symptoms of COVID-19 could be more vulnerable if they are exposed to high levels of air pollution.

Who's at risk?

Air pollution affects everyone’s health, from birth to death.

Unborn babies and children

Air pollution has been linked to premature births, low birthweight and miscarriage. Children are more vulnerable as their organs and immune systems are still developing. It can lead to childhood asthma, aggravate asthma attacks, lung damage and a lifetime of health problems.

The elderly and those with health conditions

Air pollution can really worsen some health conditions, leading to flare ups and triggering heart attacks and strokes. There is now research showing that air pollution potentially increases the risk of getting dementia.

Adults, especially in cities, and drivers

Adults are also vulnerable to air pollution. People who spend more time in areas with a high concentration of air pollution are most affected. That includes some drivers and people who spend a lot of time in cities.

What can you do?

Find out more

What are the effects?

Without knowing it, we can breathe invisible gases and fine particles deep into our lungs. After just a few hours, air pollution can irritate your eyes, nose and throat.

In the longer term, it has also been linked to some cancers, stroke, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and furring of the arteries. It can make cough and phlegm symptoms worse and increase the risk of getting bacterial pneumonia.

We’re still learning about the effects, but recent studies have also made links to dementia, reduced cognitive function and Type 2 diabetes.

Cause of 1/3 of deaths*

One third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution (WHO).

Children could live 6 months longer

Tackling air pollution could help our children live longer, healthier lives.

1,200 early GM deaths per year

Air pollution contributes to at least 1,200 deaths each year in Greater Manchester.

£5.3 billion health + social care cost

The estimated cost of air pollution in England by 2035 unless action is taken.

One third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution (WHO).

Tackling air pollution could help our children live longer, healthier lives.

Air pollution contributes to at least 1,200 deaths each year in Greater Manchester.

The estimated cost of air pollution in England by 2035 unless action is taken.

A message from Greater Manchester's Director of Public Health for Air Quality,
Eleanor Roaf

“We estimate in Greater Manchester that air pollution is the biggest environmental cause of poor health. Up to 1,200 deaths each year are contributed to by poor air quality.

“In Greater Manchester our poor health is not only about the air we breathe but because we aren’t active enough and we need to be cycling and walking more.”