The following is an overview of the DEFRA report on air pollution and standards in the UK from the research carried out in 2016 and published in 2017. The full report can be downloaded from here

High level of air pollutants, particularly particulate matter, has contributed to high risk of various diseases. The number of deaths and mouth cancer cases has increased in most parts of the world and the main risk factors are smoking and fuel combustion. Exposure to emissions from petrochemical plants and heavy metals also take part in development of the diseases and air particulate matter is harmful to cardiovascular and respiratory health.

First, what is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to the liquid and solid particles floating in the air, most of which are hazardous. The complex mixtures involve both inorganic and organic particles like pollen, dust, smoke, soot and liquid droplets. The particles also vary widely in composition, size and origin. They are emitted directly, for example when wind carries dust or during fuel combustion. They are also emitted indirectly like when a gaseous pollutant, emitted to the air previously changes into a particulate matter.

The world has many mobile and stationary sources of particles. The major sources being road transport, which releases primary particles after combustion of lubricants and fuels in vehicle engines.

Key stationery sources include burning of fuels for residential, commercial and industrial purposes. Dust emission in construction and quarry sites also produces particulate matter in higher concentration. Even more, natural sources like dust from Sahara desert and sea spray produce large amounts of particles.

Chemical reactions of some gases like SO2, NH2 and NO2 that enter the atmosphere are some of the secondary sources of particulate matter. Secondary particulate matter can also result from the organic compounds that result from reactions in the atmosphere. The major sources of the organic matter include solvents and fuel evaporation and burning – the vegetation also emits the compounds naturally.

Secondary particulate matter takes a longer time to form – It might take hours or even days. During the formation, the air carrying the pollutants travels for long distances and, therefore, the pollutants in your area might have originated from another region.

The aerodynamic nature of particulate matter determines its transportation in the air and its removal from it. The properties also govern how far they can get in a person’s air passages in the respiratory system. Moreover, they offer information about the sources and chemical

What are the effects of particulate matter?

The size of a particle directly affects its potential for causing health complications. A small particle, with a diameter less than 10 micrometres, poses the greatest problems because it can get deeper into the lungs – some particles can get into the bloodstream.

Exposure to particulate matter affects both the heart and lungs. Most scientific studies associate exposure to particulate matter to various problems, which include:

– Premature deaths in people with lung and heart diseases
– Nonfatal heart attacks
– Aggravated asthma
– Irregular heartbeat
– Decreased lung function
– Increased respiratory problems like coughing, airways irritation and difficulty in breathing
Individuals with lung or heart diseases, older adults and children are more prone to particle pollution exposure.

The most dangerous particulate matter

The available data shows that the PM10 fine components (those with a diameter below 2.5 micrometres) are the major cause of harmful side effects. The fine particles consist of trace metals like copper and zinc. They also consist of organic compounds and carbon. The evidence linking secondary inorganic particles – including nitrates and sulphate – and large particles with serious health complications is minimal.

Studies show that both short and long exposure to particulate matter can cause cardiovascular and respiratory illness or death. The most severe health effects result from exposure to particles for longer periods. UK estimates show that short-term exposure to PM10, experienced in the year 2002 caused 6500 hospital admissions and 6500 deaths.

The Committee on Medical Effects of Pollution (COMEAP) released a report in the year 2001 that showed that the number of days people live would increase as particulate matter reduces. People are likely to live for 1.5-3.5 days on average as particles in the air reduce.

Particulate matter and air quality strategies

In the UK, Defra along with the Devolved Administration have established two objectives that will help control air quality for PM10 for shorter periods. Here are the two objectives:

– The 24 hourly objective

The 24-hourly objective focuses on concentrations of particulate matter, which averages within 24 hours. The purpose of this objective is to help ensure that people are exposed to higher PM10 concentrations for shorter periods. High particulate matter concentrations arise in pollution episodes – the short periods with higher pollution levels associated with specific weather conditions.

– The annual objective

The annual objective focuses on PM10 concentration levels that average in the air within one year. The aim is to help protect the population form PM10 exposure for long periods.

Moreover, the European Union (EU) developed legislations to limit people’s exposure to air pollution by setting the maximum concentration levels, known as the limit values. Governments have also come up with regulations, which limit motor vehicle emissions, to control the emission of particulate matter.

Protect yourself from the effects of particulate matter

You should also take part in the fight for clean healthy air. Avoid working out outdoors when the pollution levels are very high. When the level of air pollution within your area is very high, walk in the nearby shopping mall, or use gym machines to workout. Limit the amount of time your kids spend playing outdoors if air quality in your area is unhealthy.

Do not exercise near the high traffic areas, including when the air quality is seemingly good. Vehicles in busy highways create higher pollution level, up to a third mile away. Reduce the amount of energy you use in your home. Electricity generation and other sources of fuel contribute highly to air pollution. By minimizing your use of energy, you will be improving the air quality, curbing greenhouse gases emission, saving money and encouraging energy independence. You can also bike, walk, carpool, and combine your trips, use rail systems, buses, subways and other options to driving your vehicle.