As part of the European project to regulate the increasing levels of air pollution, the UK has domestically and as part of the European Union passed legislation to regulate the increasing level of air pollutants within its borders.

A majority of harmful pollutants have been linked to industrial activities in the country. Some of the pollutants in question include Sulphur dioxide, Nitrogen oxides, PM10 and PM2.5 particles, Carbon Monoxide, Ozone, and Benzene. Levels of SO2 have reduced significantly in the recent past due to the decline of heavy industry. There has also been a decline in the overall levels of Nitrogen Oxide over the past two decades.

While the general trend is a decrease in some pollutants, not all follow the same projection. Particulate matter, for instance, has shown different reactions in different areas with a significant increase in some and a decrease in the concentration levels in others. INdistry both modern and traditional has a role to play in controlling the throughput of particulate matter into the atmosphere and has a duty on law to both its employees and the wider environment. 

Where Do These Particles Come From?

There are natural and artificial sources of particles. Natural sources include pollen grains, windblown dust, sand and soil among others. These tend to be larger and are considered dormant since they do not pose any serious threat to our health despite the fact that they can be an inconvenience. Particles from human activities tend to be much smaller and are more reactive. This increases their likelihood to be problematic. Most particles are directly released into the atmosphere from different sources such as vehicle emissions, chimneys, road surfaces, spoil heaps, construction sites, materials handling, dust from storage facilities and building emissions through boilers, solid fuel combustion, and ventilation shafts.

However, other particles are formed as a result of substance reactions in the atmosphere. This mostly happens when nitrogen and Sulphur oxides in the air are oxidized to create ammonium compounds and nitrates. They occur as a result of burning certain compounds and other natural sources. Such particles are usually less than 10 micrometers in diameter.

The size of a particle is very important in assessing its behavior and the amount of time it will be suspended in the air. Generally, small particles tend to stay longer in the air than the larger ones and are deposited further away from their source. Particles are classified into three categories based on their sizes. Particles with a 0.2nm diameter or less are known as nucleation mode particles. Accumulation mode particles have a diameter ranging from between 0.2nm to 2nm and have an atmospheric lifespan of between one to four weeks. Anything above 2nm is categorized as a coarse mode particle and is suspended for a very short time in the atmosphere.

Helpful links

National air quality strategy UK

DEFRA Policy document

Guidance for Employees (COSHH Basics)

Effects Of Air Pollution

While atmospheric particles can cause some displeasure to the eyes, throat, and nose, it is those that go beyond the throat that is a cause for concern. Naturally, the human respiratory system is well equipped to filter out harmful particles. The mucus and hair inside the nostrils and along the airways easily intercept particles with diameters above 4nm. Particles smaller than this can go deep inside the lungs and reach the air sacs. Such particles are mostly emitted from motor vehicles and are the biggest concern when it comes to air pollution in The United Kingdom. According to the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP), exposure to artificial particles results in more than 29,000 deaths every year with about 4,000 of these deaths being in London. This makes air pollution the biggest cause of death related to the environmental risks.

However, it is important to note that exposure to air pollution is simply a contributing factor to the deaths and not the sole reason for them. It worsens lung conditions such as asthma and other pulmonary conditions. Other problems that occur as a result of air pollution include global warming through increased emission Carbon dioxide and visibility issues which may result in accidents. The UK together with the European Union has put up legislation to help curb air pollution. For this to succeed, it will need everyone individually and collectively to play their part.