Urban Air Quality

A variety of air pollutants have harmful effects on human health and the environment. In most areas of Europe, these pollutants are principally the products of:

All but two of London's boroughs are exceeding EU limits for nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas linked to respiratory problems. Over 50 locations in London exceed the EU legal limits for nitrogen dioxide by two and a half times.

According to the latest figures available from the OECD, premature deaths and ill health caused by air pollution cost the UK economy an estimated $86bn (£56bn) in 2010.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is contamination of the environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere. Household combustion devices, motor vehicles, industrial facilities and forest fires are common sources of air pollution. Pollutants of major public health concern include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Outdoor and indoor air pollution cause respiratory and other diseases, which can be fatal.

Health effects

If you are young and healthy, low levels of air pollution are unlikely to have serious effects. However, elevated levels or long term exposure to air pollution can lead to more serious symptoms and conditions affecting human health. This mainly affects the respiratory and inflammatory systems, but can also lead to more serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer. People with lung or heart conditions are more susceptible to the effects of air pollution.

The table shows the types of health problems experienced from the most common pollutants:

Pollutant Health hazards at high levels
Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulfur Dioxide, Ozone These gases irritate the airways of the lungs, increasing the symptoms of those suffering from lung diseases
Particulate matter Fine particles can be carried deep into the lungs where they can cause inflammation and a worsening of heart and lung diseases.
They can also be carcinogenic.
Carbon Monoxide This gas prevents the uptake of oxygen by the blood. This can lead to a significant reduction in the supply of oxygen to the heart, particularly in people suffering from heart disease

Air pollution also causes damage to plants and animals, affecting biodiversity and crop yields.

The World Health Organisation identifies key risks of air pollution

The WHO has identified the following key facts:

Air pollution can be reduced by using ground source energy

There are alternatives to the three principal causes of air pollution:


It is now possible to reduce the level of air pollution by using alternatives to burning fossil fuels for generating heat and electricity and for transport.