Is the UK doing enough to monitor air pollution?

by | Oct 15, 2023 | Climate Change

By Matt WallTech reporterElla Adoo-Kissi-Debrah was just nine-years-old when she suffered a fatal asthma attack on 15 February 2013. Fast forward to 2020, and she became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a contributing cause of their death.Ella’s mother Rosamund had long campaigned for a second inquest after becoming convinced that pollution from heavy traffic near where they lived in Lewisham, south-east London, was a factor. The new inquest confirmed Rosamund’s suspicions, finding that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions had exceeded both EU and UK levels. It also concluded that quantities of dangerous particulate matter in the air (PM2.5 and PM10) had been above World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. The Deputy Coroner Philip Barlow concluded that “air pollution was a significant contributory factor to both the induction and exacerbations of her asthma”, and that “delay in reducing the levels of atmospheric air pollution is the cause of avoidable deaths”.He also cited a shortage of air quality monitors as a reason why there was still much public ignorance about this invisible killer.So what has changed since then, and how has air pollution monitoring technology improved?The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it now has 555 sites across the UK that monitor air pollution, up from 424 in 2020. Getty ImagesThey measure some or all of the most dangerous pollutants, such as NO2, sulphur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), nitric oxide (NO), and PM2.5 and PM10.The latter two are formed of tiny airborne particles produced by vehicle exhausts, brake pads, tyre wear, combustion, and industrial processes. Defra uses the monitoring networks to produce daily air quality forecasts on its UK-Air website.But these public air quality systems have not developed much over the last 30 years, warns Alastair Lewis, a professor at York University’s National Centre for Atmospheric Studies, and chair of the independent advisory Air Quality Expert Group.”We have good measurement networks for some pollutants but not for others,” he says. “For example, the volume of PM2.5 is quite easy and cheap to measure, but if you want to know what it’s actually made up of – the volatile organic compounds like chemicals from glues or paints, for example – you need a much more expensive machine costing around £100,000.”At the moment it’s a bit like trying to measure the effect different foods have on the body by simply measuring total calorie intake.”There are only a handful of state-of-the-art monitoring stations in the UK that can identify the constituents of PM2.5, adds Prof Lewis, despite this being the pollutant that causes “most economic damage to health at a population level.”To explain what he means by this, he says that air pollution has an economic as well as a social cost. “Sick people are unproductive and cost a lot of money to treat, some £5bn-£15bn a year, according to Defra.”Defra says in response that it is “investing over £10m to at least double the size of our fine particulate matter (PM2.5) monitoring network”. It adds: “This will support us to deliver further policy interventions to tackle PM2.5 and meet our stretching new targets set for this harmful pollutant under the Environment Act.” Alex HollandSarah Woolnough, chief executive of …

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