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Air quality and health

Legal control measures introduced over the last 50 years have ensured that air quality has improved greatly - and should continue to do so.

However, air pollution remains a very real concern and local authorities are required to take action if National Air Quality Objectives are exceeded. There are more than 700 air quality management areas (AQMAs) across the UK, most of which are related to emissions from road traffic.

Most people are unlikely to be affected by typical levels of air pollution in the UK. But the effects will vary from person to person. Those suffering from heart or lung conditions including asthma and bronchitis, especially young children and the elderly, are more at risk.

Air pollution banding

The Department of Health has developed an air pollution banding system which helps sensitive people manage their health. Maximum levels of five key air pollutants are considered by the system below:

BandingIndexAccompanying health messages for at risk individuals*Accompanying health messages for the general public
Low 1-3 Enjoy your usual outdoor activities Enjoy your usual outdoor activities
Moderate 4-6 Adults and children with lung problems and adults with heart problems, who experience symptoms, should consider reducing strenuous physical activity, particularly outdoors. Enjoy your usual outdoor activities
High 7-9 Adults and children with lung problems and adults with heart problems, who experience symptoms, should reduce strenuous physical activity, particularly outdoors and particular if they experience symptoms. People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more. Older people should also reduce physical exertion. Anyone experiencing discomfort such as sore eyes, cough or sore throat, should consider reducing activity, particularly outdoors.
Very High 10 Adults and children with lung problems, adults with heart problems, and older people, should avoid strenuous physical activity. People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more often.
Reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as cough or sore throat.

*Adults and children with heart or lung problems are at greater risk of symptoms. Follow your doctor's usual advice about exercising and managing your condition. It is possible that very sensitive individuals may experience health effects even on Low air pollution days. 

Further advice is available on the UK Air (Daily Air Quality Index).

The information used for this table was provided by the UK Air (Air Information Resource).

What it means for your health

  • Asthma - There is little evidence that air pollution itself causes asthma. However, if you already have asthma, you may find that air pollution triggers an attack, although infections and allergens are more likely to do so.
  • Smoking - Smoking is likely to have a much more serious effect on your health than air pollution. Giving up smoking will cut down your risk of lung and heart disease considerably. It will also make you less vulnerable to the short-term effects of air pollution.
  • In winter - If traffic fumes make breathing harder, avoid busy streets as much as you can. If you are elderly, stay indoors as much as possible and keep warm.
  • In summer - If you find it harder to breathe on hot sunny days, avoid energetic outdoor activities, especially in the afternoons when pollution levels tend to be higher. If your child has asthma, they should be able to take part in games as normal, but they may need to use their reliever inhaler more before they start. They do not need to stay away from school.

This advice above has been reproduced from the Defra leaflet Air Pollution - what it means for your health

The following external links give further advice and information:

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